Consumers increasingly express a preference for sustainable products, yet a gap remains between stated intentions and actual purchasing behavior.

80% of shoppers say they want sustainable products and 90% say they are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products. But only 7% actually buy sustainable products.

The path to bridging this gap involves understanding the diverse consumer segments that make up the market, as Vendbridge’s Beat Walther and Yann Wermuth suggested. during a recent Innov8rs Learning Lab.

Beat Walther & Yann Wermuth

Partners at Vendbridge

Sustainability has shifted from the fringes of corporate strategy to a key driver for innovation. This reflects a growing awareness and concern over environmental issues, coupled with a surge in consumer demand for products and services that not only meet their needs but do so in a manner that is mindful of their environmental footprint.

Yet there is a large gap between what customers say and what they actually do. This say-do gap presents a significant challenge for companies committed to sustainability—it's not enough for a product to be sustainable; it must also resonate with consumers on multiple levels, including cost, convenience, and quality.

By designing processes and strategies that acknowledge the importance of a genuinely sustainable product portfolio, companies can begin to address the nuanced demands of their target markets. The journey is as much about changing consumer perceptions and behaviors as it is about product development.

Identifying and Understanding Consumer Segments

First, recognize the diversity within the consumer market regarding sustainability. There are four distinct consumer segments: Super Sustainable, Conflicted, Relaxed, and Anti-Sustainable.

Super Sustainable Consumers: This group represents the vanguard of sustainability, comprising individuals deeply committed to environmental causes and willing to go the extra mile to support sustainable products and practices. This segment plays a pivotal role in driving the initial adoption and advocacy for sustainable products. However, despite their enthusiasm and commitment, this segment is relatively small, highlighting the need for businesses to engage more broadly across consumer segments.

Conflicted Consumers: Perhaps the most intriguing group, the Conflicted Consumers acknowledge the importance of sustainability but find themselves hampered by barriers such as cost, convenience, and ingrained habits. This segment represents a significant opportunity for growth, as addressing the needs and barriers of this segment can catalyze a shift towards more sustainable consumer behaviors broadly.

Relaxed Consumers: This segment is characterized by a general apathy towards sustainability. While not actively opposed to sustainable products, the Relaxed Consumers prioritize other factors such as price, convenience, and brand loyalty over sustainability. Engaging this group requires highlighting the ancillary benefits of sustainable products, such as cost savings over time or superior quality, to create a compelling value proposition that resonates with their priorities.

Anti-Sustainable Consumers: The smallest segment, these consumers are skeptical to sustainability, often viewing it as a compromise to product efficacy or an unnecessary cost premium. While challenging to engage, this group's conversion is not the primary focus for businesses aiming to mainstream sustainable products; however, understanding their motivations can offer insights into broader market resistance.

Engaging The Different Consumer Segments

Understanding consumer segments is the first step; next is effectively communicating the value of sustainable products in a way that resonates with each segment's unique preferences and barriers.

Strategies for the Super Sustainable: For consumers already committed to sustainability, the environmental benefits of a product are often sufficient to motivate purchase. However, even within this group, deepening engagement can involve highlighting the broader impact of their choices, such as supporting ethical labor practices or contributing to local economies. This segment appreciates transparency and depth in the sustainability narratives of the products they support.

Engaging the Conflicted Consumers: The Conflicted Consumers who are sympathetic to sustainability but hindered by perceived barriers, require a nuanced messaging strategy. The suggestion is to focus on overcoming specific barriers, such as affordability or convenience. For instance, illustrating the long-term cost savings of a sustainable product or its superior performance can be effective. Additionally, providing clear, accessible information on the sustainability benefits can help demystify the concept and make sustainable choices feel more attainable and practical.

Appealing to Relaxed Consumers: The Relaxed segment, which prioritizes factors other than sustainability, can be engaged by associating sustainable products with attributes they value, such as quality, efficiency, or status. For these consumers, sustainability needs to be framed as an added benefit rather than the primary value proposition. Marketing strategies that subtly incorporate sustainability into the narrative of convenience and quality can gradually elevate the importance of eco-friendly choices in their purchasing criteria.

Addressing Anti-Sustainable Skepticism: While the Anti-Sustainable group might be the most challenging to persuade, there's value in attempting to soften their skepticism without direct confrontation. Strategies here can include focusing on innovation, technology, and performance aspects of sustainable products. By showcasing the superior functionality or technological advancements of sustainable options, businesses can create a gateway for these consumers to reconsider their stance on sustainability, albeit from a non-environmental starting point.

Beyond tailoring messages to each segment, companies must also navigate the broader challenge of maintaining a coherent brand identity that appeals across the spectrum. This balancing act involves crafting a multifaceted brand narrative that emphasizes universal values such as innovation, quality, and customer care, alongside sustainability. Integrating sustainability into the brand's core identity in a way that feels authentic and inclusive can help bridge the divide between segments, making sustainable products more appealing to a wider audience.

Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Product Adoption

The transition towards a more sustainable market involves not only understanding consumer segments and effectively communicating benefits but also directly addressing the barriers that hinder sustainable product adoption. Here’s how to identify and overcome these obstacles, essential for converting interest into action across diverse consumer groups.

Price Sensitivity

One of the most significant barriers to sustainable product adoption is the perception, and often reality, of higher costs. To address this, companies can focus on communicating the long-term value and cost-effectiveness of sustainable products. For instance, a product that uses less energy or lasts longer than its conventional counterparts can offer savings over time, offsetting the initial price premium. Additionally, businesses can explore innovative pricing strategies, such as subscription models or loyalty programs, to make sustainable options more financially accessible.

Convenience and Accessibility

Many consumers prioritize convenience, which can deter them from choosing sustainable products that are perceived as less readily available or more challenging to use. Companies can mitigate this by enhancing the availability of sustainable products through broader distribution channels and ensuring that these products are as convenient as traditional options. Simple innovations in product design or packaging can significantly reduce perceived inconvenience, making sustainable choices the path of least resistance for consumers.

Lack of Awareness and Misinformation

Despite growing interest in sustainability, there remains a gap in consumer understanding of what sustainability means and how individual choices impact the environment. Educational campaigns that clearly explain the benefits of sustainable products, debunk common myths, and provide transparent information about product origins and manufacturing processes can empower consumers to make informed decisions. Engaging storytelling and leveraging social proof through testimonials or endorsements can also help bridge the knowledge gap.

Cultural and Social Norms

Cultural perceptions and social norms influence consumer behavior significantly, including sustainability. Encouraging sustainable practices may require shifting these norms to value sustainability as a desirable trait. Marketing campaigns that highlight the social benefits of sustainable living, such as improved health or community well-being, and feature relatable role models can shift perceptions and create a cultural shift towards embracing sustainability.

Product Performance Concerns

Concerns about the efficacy of sustainable products compared to traditional alternatives can also be a barrier. Demonstrating that sustainable products do not require a compromise in quality or performance is crucial. Companies can invest in product development to ensure their sustainable offerings meet or exceed the performance standards of non-sustainable alternatives and highlight these achievements in their marketing efforts.


Finally, skepticism towards companies' sustainability claims, often due to greenwashing, can erode trust. To combat this, businesses must prioritize transparency in their sustainability efforts, providing concrete data and third-party certifications to back up their claims. Creating an open dialogue with consumers about the challenges and progress in achieving sustainability goals can further build trust and encourage adoption.

Creating a Growth Plan for Sustainable Products

Each segment calls for a different strategy to nudge towards the sustainable option. This awareness should then be translated into a robust growth plan that address the five elements to bridge the say-do gap.

Strategic Product Portfolio Development: At the heart of a growth plan for sustainable products is the development of a strategic product portfolio that aligns with the company's sustainability goals and meets consumer demands across different segments.

This involves investing in research and development to innovate products that offer genuine sustainability benefits without compromising on quality or performance. Incorporating sustainability into the product development process from the outset ensures that the final offerings are not only environmentally friendly but also competitively positioned in terms of price, convenience, and appeal.

Segment-Specific Marketing and Communication: Effective communication strategies that resonate with each consumer segment's unique preferences and values are crucial for the successful adoption of sustainable products. Tailoring marketing messages to highlight the specific benefits and overcome perceived barriers for each segment can significantly enhance consumer engagement.

For the Super Sustainable, emphasizing the environmental impact and ethical considerations; for the Conflicted, focusing on overcoming barriers such as cost and convenience; for the Relaxed, associating sustainability with quality and status; and for the Anti-Sustainable, highlighting innovation and performance without necessarily leading with the sustainability aspect.

Partnerships and Collaboration: Expanding the reach and impact of sustainable products often requires collaboration across the value chain. Forming partnerships with suppliers, distributors, retailers, and even competitors can help address systemic challenges in the sustainability space, such as raw material sourcing, recycling, and circular economy models.

Collaborative efforts can also extend to engaging with policymakers, non-profit organizations, and industry associations to drive broader environmental initiatives and standards.

Consumer Education and Engagement: Overcoming the knowledge gap and shifting cultural norms towards sustainability requires ongoing consumer education and engagement. Initiatives that provide consumers with actionable information on living more sustainably, the benefits of choosing sustainable products, and how individual actions contribute to larger environmental goals can empower consumers to make informed decisions.

Leveraging digital platforms, social media, and community events for educational outreach and engagement can also help build a community of advocates for the brand's sustainability mission.

Monitoring, Evaluation, and Transparency: A dynamic growth plan for sustainable products requires continuous monitoring and evaluation to assess progress towards sustainability goals and adjust strategies as needed.

Transparent reporting on sustainability metrics, challenges faced, and successes achieved fosters trust and credibility with consumers and stakeholders. It also provides valuable insights for further innovation in product development and marketing strategies.

Successfully integrating sustainability into innovation processes and product portfolios requires a commitment to understanding and addressing the diverse needs and barriers of your consumer base.

As sustainability becomes increasingly important to consumers, being proactive can present significant opportunities for differentiation and growth. Engaging consumers with authenticity and transparency in your sustainability efforts can build trust and loyalty across all segments.

Also, remember that the journey toward more sustainable business practices and product offerings is ongoing. The landscape of consumer attitudes towards sustainability is evolving, and staying attuned to these changes is vital. Continuous engagement, research, and adaptation of your strategies will be necessary to meet the shifting demands and expectations of consumers.