When Al Gore sat down to explain how civilization is unlikely to survive the next century, his proposition consisted of a need of “…serious political reform, a web-driven social movement, and the best available telecommunication and clean energy technologies in the days ahead”. To him, and many leaders in the environmental professional community, it’s no longer about the science of it all; holding an overall consensus admitting we have all the technology and development required to resolve every existing critical issue, in a considerably systemic manner.
Yet the panic ensues as environmental remediation continues to grow as a billion dollar industry; and arguably to some, to keep it that way. So, are the environmentalists not working hard enough, or are people just so hopeless? As a designer of sorts and advocate of smarter environmentalism, I’m writing this incredibly un-technical piece to shine a light on everything wrong with the auto-adapted approach to environmentalism. A predicament currently permeating every layer of this niche, from engineering to marketing said engineered solutions.
After all, writing exclusively to the engineer/architect/scientist cluster of readers is furthering the condition of environmentalism being inferred to said crowd, and ‘owned’ as ‘their’ problem to fix. This truth is: it really takes every slice of solution providers, users, and auxiliary of middlemen to achieve the aspired intent of those scientists and engineers to begin with.
This piece will indeed mostly address those middlemen, yet every part of the chain is no less in need of understanding where they fall short and why. It is a collective endeavor, but it also starts with marketers and designers of green solutions and products understanding that the rules of the game don’t change when it comes the green niche – Even if most of what we see in green design and marketing seems to tell us otherwise.
Moving Beyond the Niche
The problem with green products, even the ones that are actually effective/not green-washing, is that they still fall into a niche category. To illustrate, this is an example of how the overwhelming majority of green alternatives end up in our world.
Every product out there, from solar PV installation services to biopolymer household disposables, is made for everyone – yet very often not marketed to everyone or used by everyone, at least not a percentage worth celebrating. The problem with sustaining this niche quality is that a small niche is never really as effective as the whole. And anyhow, no one product will save the planet on its own, and similarly, no one small group of consumers will either.
Scientists, think of the last time you were on a website for a green company, one you really thought was great and had projects with a non-niche end user. I’m willing to bet that website looked very specific and scientific. The products themselves were probably marketed in the same manner, and I’m willing to bet even designed in that way. Which brings me to my next point…
People Want to be Different, but not Really
If you’ve ever worked for a target audience without a sense of altruism or love for the planet being a part of the equation in your common work dialogue, aka traditional marketing and sales; you probably have come to know the above trait about people.
With the exemption of luxury end buyers, and other small groups we can also ignore here, the majority of end buyers and consumers on this planet – or to phrase in a different way; the generality of consumer behavior in general consumer goods and services- tells us that people want to stand out, but not stand alone.
The takeaway from that is that when designing for mass reach and use, it is important to consider certain factors when providing an ‘alternative’ product. For example, asking people to change their existing behavior is very difficult to achieve on a mass scale. The solution? Design things that don’t require them to do so. If people happen to litter or overuse disposables, design disposables that don’t stick around as toxic waste, and market them as exactly what they are: quality economical disposables that also happen to be aligned with the planet.
If you’ve engineered an excellent Atmospheric Water Generator for home use, design it that way! The general market does not want a strange behemoth of a machine staring back at them in their own homes. Many AWG companies have been getting it right with designing them to look like watercoolers, for example. The marketing angle ends up as: here is a great accessible source of water that is also a more sustainable practice than bottled water, and it doesn’t clash with what I’ve done with my kitchen.
Yes, believe it. Encouraging consumer behavior includes thinking on that level; it’s why superficiality has successfully trumped the grandness of the planet’s dilemma for decades. The entire concept of “recycling hasn’t proven effective either in technicality or in adoption as a mass behavior, so let’s recycle harder” is not smart environmentalism.
Value over Metrics
A last point worth including is the crippling obsession with metrics. Most pitches involving selling a shift to a greener alternative are often riddled with numbers, so much that it’s easy to forget most corporate CEOs have a pre-conceived agreement or refusal instinct that will outplay logic at times. They instinctively understand the former statement made in this article that no one single group or solution will save the planet, and unless they were looking to add a cause-marketing angle to their PR, will not be swayed without non-altruistic value to why this shift is good for their company, and why it won’t be a typical disruptive headache a person will have to deal with.
To summarize, a people-centered approach to green design and marketing is really a call to targeting people the way they are, and not how they should be. It is then an acknowledgment of the important role of the middlemen in collaboratively finding creative ways to bridge the appropriate green alternatives to industries and consumers. The mistake often happens when the scientific cluster take that on as their job, consecutively adding to the large wasteland of the niche cycle.
- People-centered Approach to Green Design and Marketing - August 12, 2017
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