Why "Eco" Products Fail


I grew up in Oregon. My parents weren't the stereotypical hippies but they were close. We had the VW bus (bright orange with the license plate "PUMKIN") and we had the green VW bug to go with it. On weekends we'd drive out to farms and pick our vegetables ourselves or go to the co-op and to pick up organic foods (back when most everything was). We ate vegetarian until I was five and lived a life that was about understanding the world around us. All growing up my parents had a focus on not buying too much stuff. My father was obsessed with saving up for the "best" stereo/TV/vacuum cleaner/whatchamacallit. 

So that's my bias. Don't buy a lot of things but when you do make sure it's quality.

Turns out this isn't how everyone thinks. Most people buy what's available to them at a price they can afford and view the idea of owning stuff as a sign of success. They don't save up for the one thing they want and they don't think of the implications of the products they buy. Recent terrible events in Bangladesh are a prime example of this. We know, rationally, that this way of buying products means more manufacturing, more energy, more shipping, more greenhouse gas emissions. We know that our greater consumption of goods leads to greater consumption of what we love about our planet. 

The response seems to be division. Division between those who believe that their way of consumption is right. Those of us who believe in consuming less and those who believe in consuming more. With the shifts in the climate and changes in the amount of extreme weather, those of us who believe in consuming less are sounding more and more like dark age doomsayers. 

What affect do we think this has on those of us who believe in consuming more? SUV sales are a good indicator. They've gone up. In fact, the only hit that SUV sales took over the last few years has not been due to the finger-wagging of "environmentalists" it's been the price of gas.

When I worked on ecomagination with GE they had a clear and obvious way of talking about this exact issue. Simply change the context. Environmentalism isn't about consuming less or more. Environmentalism isn't about buying one product versus another simply because it's less harmful to the planet. Companies should buy these products because they're more efficient. They save money. We articulated this in a simple, American, catch-phrase: "Green is green". The results were an increase in sales of nearly $5B over the three years.

What worked was that this campaign didn't say "consume less" or "save the planet". These keystones of the environmental movement simply don't work.

"Consume less"

If the world is divided by those who consume more and those who consume less (which in my experience it is) then demanding that certain people change their habits to be more like another group of people is the equivalent of telling them they're bad people. Last time someone told me I was a bad person it didn't go over so well, they didn't get what they wanted. The same is probably true for you. The truth of the matter is, you could make an electric GMC Yukon and it would probably have a lower environmental impact than a hybrid Prius. "More" or "less" isn't the debate and making it so makes people defensive and angry and probably sells a lot more SUVs.


SUVs themselves are a great example. They've become the default symbol of environmental destruction. But why? They don't have to be so inefficient. It's simply based on government regulations that allow for SUVs to have lower emission restrictions than other types of vehicles. But you could easily make a fuel-efficient, high-torque, boat-towing monster of a vehicle. Electric motors are 100% torque. That electric Yukon … it'd be BETTER at pulling, climbing, bogging, or going to pick up the kids from soccer. The truth is, most people buy SUVs for the sense of safety and power not for the low fuel efficiency.

"Save the planet"

As David Foster Wallace put it in his incredible commencement speech at Kenyon College, our daily life is slog. (ok he didn't exactly say that but kinda.) We have a lot to deal with, a lot to manage and a lot of little things that seem like they should be easy sometimes feel humungous. 

So here we are, getting up, getting kids ready for school, going to work, stressing out over reports and meetings and then going home to get some family time in then watch TV till we go to sleep. Got that image in your head? Was it terribly different than your actual experience? Now … go save the world.

The scale of this challenge, this demand, is too great. It's a job for superheroes, billionaires and ex-Vice Presidents. It's not a job for us. It's too big. Most people can't fathom the whole planet let alone a way to "save" it. As long as the sky is blue, the birds sing and there's food on the table "saving the planet" won't seem necessary to anyone.

Instead we need a new way of talking about eco products and the environmental movement. We need to think of it from the perspective of the needs and wants of the people who can really make a difference. You and me and the guy down the street with the snowmobiles, riding lawnmower and black GMC Yukon.

It's about making all these products more efficient and cheaper. If you love the sound of a big engine but keep getting passed by electric cars, you'll eventually want one. No finger-wagging required. If your home energy bill keep going up but your neighbors' don't because they have solar panels, you'll get them too. And if you could build a power plant that didn't require a constant feed of expensive oil or coal, you'd build it.

In getting there, we can't make the discussion about aesthetics or morals. We can't design for "eco-products" because the people who will buy eco-products are already "consume less" people. We have to design for "consume more" people. We can't make it about morals because morality is too costly of a discussion, it will take too long and require too much energy. And we need to accept that the first few generations of new products may not be perfect solutions. They may simply be slightly more efficient but we must move the needle. Even if we have a revolutionary product, without moving the needle of customer perspective first, that product will end up in the trash like the first electric cars.

I believe we can do it. I believe that we can design and create products that are environmentally beneficial without the target customer knowing it. I believe we can lay the foundation for change through an iterative shifting of mindsets so that when the revolutionary product comes along the "consume more" people will be ready. Because we need them to be.