Strategies for Marketing Product Sustainability

Oct 5th, 2010 | By | Category: Popular Posts, Sustainability

With the increased focus on sustainability in the marketplace, consumers have the choice between sustainable and traditional alternatives in a growing number of product categories. Despite this growth in the number of alternatives available, not all consumers are buying sustainable products. In fact, the success of sustainable products differs by product category: for example, sustainable brands often do quite well in the personal care product category but have a relatively weak market share in the household cleaning products category. This difference in market share suggests that sustainability increases product preference more for some products than for others.

Sustainability Research

We conducted a series of sustainability research studies recently published in the Journal of Marketing that reveal the reason for this inconsistency. Our research suggests that consumers associate ethicality and sustainability with gentleness; they associate a lack of ethicality and sustainability with strength. In a product context, these associations mean consumers think that a product can be sustainable or strong, but not both. Thus, sustainable products are less preferred in product categories in which consumers are looking for a strong product, an effect we call the “sustainability liability.”

The Sustainability Liability

To demonstrate this liability, we conducted a study in a university behavioral research laboratory that shows that sustainability undermines preference in product categories where strength is valued (e.g., car shampoo) but enhances preference in product categories where gentleness is valued (e.g., baby shampoo). To show these effects, however, we needed to use projective research techniques. Simply asking consumers what they think can be misleading because many consumers see buying sustainable products as socially desirable. In other words, they may be motivated to report that they would buy sustainable products even if they have no intention of actually doing so. To address this issue, we asked half the participants in our studies to respond to our purchase intention questions as they thought the “average American” would respond. The sustainability liability is uncovered only when using this sort of projective technique, which allows consumers to project their own preferences onto the “average American” without feeling like they are being judged by the researcher.

A field study outside of the lab confirmed the importance of using projective techniques when studying the sustainability liability. During the fall of 2009, when fears about swine flu were at their height, we observed consumers choosing between a sustainable and a traditional brand of hand sanitizer. When consumers thought they were being observed by researchers, they overwhelmingly chose the sustainable hand sanitizer. When they didn’t think they were being observed, they chose the traditional hand sanitizer. This provides more evidence that the sustainability liability does affect preferences (in this case a real choice with real consequences), but consumers may be reluctant to admit it.

Overcoming the Sustainability Liability

A final study addressed how marketers of sustainable products can overcome the sustainability liability. Building on the fact that the liability is due to consumers’ assumptions that sustainable products aren’t strong, we tested whether making an explicit claim that a product is strong can reduce the effects of the sustainability liability. In a study testing preference for tires marketed as sustainable, we found that reassuring consumers of the strength of the product can significantly reduce the sustainability liability. Apart from using explicit strength claims (e.g., “guaranteed strong” in advertising and on packages) in product categories where consumers value strength, marketers of sustainable products can also consider alternative means of reassuring consumers that sustainable products have the same toughness and effectiveness as traditional products. For example, co-branding a new sustainable product offering with a brand name already known for strength can provide this same type of assurance (which may explain the success of Clorox’s line of Green Works® cleaners). We also suggest that marketers of sustainable products in categories where gentleness is valued will do well to promote their sustainability actively, thereby benefiting from the same associations that are a liability in other product categories.


In sum, our studies revealed that sustainability does not always enhance product preferences and can actually be a liability in some product categories. Fortunately, there are ways for marketers to overcome this liability, thus creating sustainable offerings that will appeal to a wide variety of consumers, even in product categories where consumers are looking for strength and toughness in their products.

Further Reading

Luchs, Michael, Rebecca Walker Naylor, Julie R. Irwin, and Rajagopal Raghunathan (2010), “The Sustainability Liability: Potential Negative Effects of Ethicality on Product Preference,” Journal of Marketing, 74 (September), 18-31.

About the Authors

Dr. Michael G. Luchs is an Assistant Professor at the College of William and Mary’s Mason School of Business. He earned his Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Dr. Luchs also earned an M.S. in Marketing from The University of Texas at Austin, an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, as well as a B.S.E. in Mechanical Engineering and a B.A. in Psychology from Tufts University. Before earning his Ph.D., Dr. Luchs worked for more than a decade as a consultant and as a manager in industry specializing in new product development and product management. His research interests include sustainability/ethical consumerism and product design and creativity. He has published his research in the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Product Innovation Management.

Rebecca Walker Naylorreceived her Ph.D. in marketing from The University of Texas at Austin in 2006. She joined the faculty of the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University in 2009 after serving on the faculty at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Naylor’s research focuses on the area of consumer behavior. Specifically, her research has explored consumer intuitions, consumer response to ethical products, food and health decision making, and consumer disposal practices. Current projects continue to explore these topics, as well as social influence and inference making. Dr. Naylor’s research has appeared in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the International Journal of Research in Marketing, the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, and Marketing Letters.

Julie R. Irwinreceived her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Prior to joining the Marketing Department at the McCombs School at The University of Texas, where she is a Full Professor, she served on the marketing faculty at the Stern School of Business at New York University and as a visiting professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Most of Dr. Irwin’s publications concern consumer judgment and decision making, with an emphasis on purchasing decisions involving ethical issues. She also publishes work on statistical methodology. Dr. Irwin’s research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and in books such as Wharton on Decision Making and Economics and Happiness: Framing the Analysis.

Raj Raghunathan is associate professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. He earned his Ph.D. from the Stern School of Business at New York University. Raj’s work juxtaposes theories from psychology, behavioral sciences, decision theory, and marketing to document and explain interrelationships between affect and consumption behavior. Raj’s work has been published in top marketing and psychology journals such as the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. His work has also been cited in such popular newspapers as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Houston Chronicle, and The Austin American Statesman. Raj was recognized as a Marketing Science Young Scholar in 2006 for his contributions to the field of marketing, and he was awarded the National Science Foundation Career Grant Award for the period 2007 to 2011.

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  1. […] Luchs, M., & Naylor, R. W. (2010, October 5). Strategies for Marketing Product Sustainability. InEHS Retrieved October 27, 2013, from… […]

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