Why is it so hard to sell sustainability? — Atelier Pan

Why is it so hard to sell sustainability?

The tenth of October was Dutch Sustainability Day and in honour of that occasion I’d like to talk with you about selling sustainability. As a fellow change maker I imagine you want to have positive impact on the world with your business. I know this can be quite the challenge, though. Selling sustainability isn’t as easy as it should be.


And at the same time we need sustainability more than ever:

​“Sustainability has gone from a nice-to-do to a must-do.”

—Steve Howard, Let’s go all-in on sustainability

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We know that consumers and clients care about sustainability. So many surveys have told us so:

“We know from asking people from China to the U.S. that the vast majority of people care about sustainability after the day-to-day issues, the day-to-day issues of, how do I get my kids to school? Can I pay the bills at the end of the month? Then they care about big issues like climate change. But they want it to be easy, affordable and attractive, and they expect business to help, and they're a little bit disappointed today.” —Steve Howard, TEDGlobal 2013: Let’s go all-in on sustainability

​Watching Steve’s TED Talk reminds me of a guide a recently read on Selling Sustainability by BSR, Futura and other members of BSR’s Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group. In this guide they explain why it’s so hard to sell sustainability and how you can turn that around. I’ll tell you a little more about their interesting approach.

Atelier Pan | Selling Sustainability


As change makers we tend to build our marketing and sales strategies around guild-tripping consumers and clients into buying our sustainable product. Or we focus our efforts on making them feel good about themselves when they’re doing the right thing. We totally forget to actually mention what’s in it for our clients. And therein lies our problem and that’s what we should change.

We need to shift our focus away from the feel-good factor and the guild-trip and move towards the benefits of our superior product. And if we combine that with taking away the barriers that prevent consumers and clients from buying our product, we set to go!

“Sustainable products […] are better for the planet; we need to make them more obviously better for the person.”

—Selling Sustainability

In the guide they portrait their approach in an easy-to-follow formula:

Fewer barriers + more benefits = value

—From: Selling Sustainability

I’ll explain the 3 elements of the formula in a bit more detail:


In the (recent) past there were quite some barriers that prevented consumers from buying sustainable products. To name a few: higher price, less comfort and sub-par performance.

Steve Howard takes us back to the time of the first sustainable products: “We had detergents that could wash your whites grayer. We had the early energy-efficient light bulbs that took five minutes to warm up and then you were left looking a kind of sickly color. And we had the rough, recycled toilet paper. So every time you pulled on a t-shirt, or switched the light on, or went to the bathroom, or sometimes all three together, you were reminded sustainability was about compromise. It wasn't a great start.”

However, things have changed. These barriers shouldn’t hold us back anymore as these can be overcome more easily with each passing day with all the technological innovations that are taking place. We now have choices. He continues: “We can make products that are beautiful or ugly, sustainable or unsustainable, affordable or expensive, functional or useless. So let's make beautiful, functional, affordable, sustainable products.


Atelier Pan | Selling Sustainability benefits

If we start to focus less on the sustainability aspect and more on the benefits of your superior product, we can tip the scale in our favour. What’s in it for your consumer or client? What are the benefits of your product? —I also wrote about this in a previous article: Why should I do business with you, but the guide describes it in a very practical way:

“If the balance towards benefits isn’t strong enough, then it’s back to the basics —you need to build in more benefits.”

—Selling Sustainability

Benefits can be placed in 3 categories: functional, emotional and social. Here are a few questions from the guide to help you brainstorm about your benefits:


  1. Can sustainability add or detract from value for money?
  2. Enhance or hinder performance and efficacy?
  3. Improve or worsen quality?


  1. Can sustainability strengthen or weaken sensory experiences?
  2. Offer more or less physical comfort?
  3. Provide a thrill of excitement or only a dull experience?


  1. Can sustainability facilitate or disrupt family bonding?
  2. Make them seem more or less desirable in others’ eyes?
  3. Prove how cool, smart and able they are or make them look foolish?


So, remove the barriers, put your focus on the benefits and you’ll create a much more compelling value proposition. And until you do, your sustainable product will continue to struggle.

Read more about this approach at the Futura website: Selling sustainability.


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With pleasure,


Atelier Pan | Brand Design for Conscious Entrepreneurs
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  1. Watch Steve Howard’s talk from TEDGlobal 2013: Let’s go all-in on sustainability
  2. Download the Selling Sustainability guide from the Futura website: Selling sustainability

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