Collaborative, Normative, Better: Thoughts from Sustainable Brands 2014

Collaborative, Normative, Better: Thoughts from Sustainable Brands 2014

I recently spoke in the Consumer Research and Insights Workshop at the Sustainable Brands conference and attended several other sessions on a wide variety of topics. The event was stimulating, as always, and I thought that I would share a few of the best insights I heard during the week.

The Collaborative Economy

We’ve been hearing a lot about the new collaborative economy, as well as a lot of angst-filled discussion among members of the sustainability community about the need to sell/buy less stuff. But how can companies possibly do this and stay in business? Jeremiah Owyang, with Crowd Companies, answered this question with the most useful value chain model I’ve seen on the topic in his presentation “How Brands Are Leading the Collaborative Economy.”

Owyang talked about the dramatic increase in peer-to-peer commerce and asked the question, “What role do corporations play if people get what they need from each other?” The answer: enable a platform for innovation and commerce.

He also suggested that rather than focusing just on manufacturing products, companies must find a way to turn their products into services. He offered examples like the BMW DriveNow program, which encourages people to rent from dealer lots. According to Owyang, BMW plans “to sell one BMW a thousand times.”

He also recommended participating in a new marketplace model in which companies create and facilitate markets for the resale and purchase of their products (like the Patagonia Common Threads program).

All of this makes great sense to me, and whether your company is currently driven by sustainability or not, it should be thinking (now) about how to maintain relevance (and profit-generating ability) in a very rapidly changing business environment, as the emerging Internet of Things is driving us closer to a “zero marginal cost society,” as Jeremy Rifkin describes in his new book by that title (which I highly recommend).

Social Norming and the Curated Culture

A couple of presentations referenced the importance of social norming for sustainability. Dara O’Rourke, founder of GoodGuide, presented research which found that sustainability can influence behavior but that, as we’ve also found, social confirmation bias is a huge problem in sustainability research. People say they care because it’s becoming socially normative to do so, but they end up purchasing in an entirely different way.

That study found that when specific claims were tested, health and wellness moved the needle best, but environmental benefits were actually negatively correlated with final purchase. O’Rourke asked the question, “How can we connect to who people think they are and who they want to be?” He said that we live in a “curation world” where we carefully curate our image online through social media. He suggests that retailers should use this insight to tap into the aspiration and social norming around sustainability, saying “the retailer who is the best curator wins.”

Kristin Heist of Continuum presented qualitative research findings on Gen Y, also highlighting the power of social norming and social media for Millennials. A key finding from the research is that Gen Y has a very world-centric view, actively sharing photos and links about issues from all over the world. And while (individually) they feel overwhelmed by the world’s troubles and doubt that individual action can help, they believe that they can have an impact as a group and feel an imperative to do right, right now. There’s an opportunity to tap into this desire and connect issues to actions.


Finally, a common thread running through several presentations this year, including my own early findings from Eco Pulse 2014 (which I’ll write about in more detail in a couple of weeks), is that the best way to encourage more green product purchasing is to move beyond sacrifice, premiums and trade-offs to position sustainable products as BETTER. We have to do a better job tapping into lower-level drivers (like health and security) and connecting with psychological desires like beauty, style, image and quality. In short, sustainable products are usually better products (in the way they are made, their durability, their taste, etc.), and they should be positioned that way.

As we’ve said many times before, people rarely buy more sustainable products and services simply for the sake of sustainability – and we’ve got to stop leading with that.

Collaborative Economy model from Jeremiah Owyang, Crowd Companies, “How Brands Are Leading the Collaborative Economy,” Sustainable Brands 2014.


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Posted on

June 19, 2014

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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