Selling Sustainability

by Anna Lindeman

Companies in the sustainability space face a common challenge: how do they sell their products or services? Convincing customers to buy something for purely environmental or sustainability reasons can still be rather difficult. Products or services which are meeting an existing need of customers, with the additional benefit of being sustainable, is somewhat easier. If a customer has a choice between two similar products, one being sustainable, the other not, many will choose the more sustainable product, even at a slightly higher price, as it seems like the right thing to do. What, then, of products or services which do not necessarily meet an existing need, but are better for our planet?

Take, for instance, the real estate and construction industry. I work for an energy efficiency company, which provides a suite of services to real estate companies, with the goal of reducing energy and water use in multifamily residential buildings. We have many clients who are interested in reducing energy and water use, primarily to save money on their utility bills and decrease operating costs. Clients appreciate the added benefit of being more sustainable, and reducing carbon emissions, but it is not always the main reason they want to work with us. I’m sure that this problem is not unique to the real estate industry.

So, how to convince consumers and companies to opt for more sustainable products, services and supply chains, when the immediate benefit is not tangible or obvious? How do we tell customers they need these services? There are several options, of course: educating our customers, advocating for laws and regulations which require more sustainable choices, investors asking for greater disclosure on sustainability efforts. These are all good options, and should be pursued.

However, in my view, we (I am referring to the collective we, not my particular company) need to start telling stories. I like this article which discusses how telling stories can help us make sense of climate change, a notoriously difficult topic to grasp on an emotional level. Stories give us something we can relate to in our own experience.

We can apply this idea to any company who is looking to sell its services in the sustainability space. I’ll use the energy and water efficiency company as an example. An upgrade to a building will make it more energy efficient, save on utility bills, and reduce carbon emissions. Those all sound like good things – but what if we think of it on a more personal, individual level? Why don’t we tell more stories of individual residents who are now more comfortable in their apartments? Or of elderly residents who were able to rely on solar energy during a storm which resulted in loss of power to the electric grid? It is these types of stories that people can relate to and that can create lasting impact. We need more personal stories to sell sustainability.