Harnessing Competition and Imitation for Greener Outcomes

By Bonnie J. Wallace

Some academic researchers believe that the excessive consumption threatening our planet finds its roots in “people’s innate desire for status that improves reproductive opportunities.” They provide evidence that this tendency is neither a product of Western culture, capitalism, or advertising, but reaches back to ancient Egypt, feudal Europe, and Amazon tribes etc. (See The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship).

The overall strategic takeaway from accounting for the human desire for relative status is that requesting that people be content with their current status, or worse, lower their status, is very unlikely to succeed. Instead, they offer several ways that are likely to work with this drive and produce greener behavioral choices. Competitive altruism and imitation are two impulses that can be effectively used for green marketing purposes.

Competitive altruism suggests that people can be motivated to act in ways that support the environment if their actions are visible to others, and thus support their relative status. For example, sales on the Toyota Prius, a car that visibly broadcasts its owner’s green cred, remained nearly flat between 2005 and 2006, despite the introduction of significant U.S. pro-environmental tax credits for 2006. However, 2007 Prius sales increased by 68.9% over 2006 sales, coinciding with expiration of its tax credits, further bolstering the theory that not only did the tax credit not boost sales, but that the higher price increased its desirability as a status signal, communicating the driver’s level of commitment to being environmentally responsible. This is not to imply that tax credits don’t work as motivators, particularly in the absence of visible indicators of competitive altruism. It may suggest that the desire for relative status is more powerful than the desire to save money, however.

Imitation—or unconsciously copying the behavior of others—is an adaptive trait that saves us from the cost of individually learning everything through trial and error. Because this strong inclination toward mimicry is much more powerful than any “should,” if people can be persuaded that many others are following the desired behavior, they are more likely to follow suit. This strategy has been employed successfully to increase rates of recycling, decrease littering, and energy use.

The key to effective messaging is framing the statistics to emphasize the large number of people engaging in the desired behavior, even if they are still a true minority. The authors suggest the example of reframing a carpool statistic from relative numbers “(‘5% of city residents carpool each week’ to absolute numbers ‘more than 250,000 city residents carpool each week!’).” Speaking for myself, 5% seems unimpressive, and 250k seems incredibly impressive.

While it may not be big news that the human impulse toward competition and imitation is a strong driver for destructive behavior, I find evidence for its evolutionary basis to be compelling. A little tweaking of marketing efforts can use those impulses to create greener, more constructive outcomes.

Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.


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Why AT&T’s Eco-Rating System Is off the Mark

AT&T has launched its eco-rating system in stores, allowing customers to compare cell phones’ environmental impacts. The system rates handsets on 15 criteria, granting a point for each environmentally preferable criterion the handset possesses. Phones with 14-15 points will get 5 stars;  phones with 5 or fewer points will get no stars. AT&T expects most phones it sells will fall somewhere in the middle.

AT&T has articulated the following goals for this new green labeling scheme:

  • Engage consumers and respond to growing interest
  • Drive industry improvement on sustainability
  • Help set the agenda for more sustainable products
  • Anticipate regulations
  • Demonstrate AT&T leadership

As our recent research shows, a growing number of companies are beginning to take responsibility for the environmental impacts in their supply chains. AT&T’s initiative is not an example of this. Rather than stipulating sustainability standards itself, AT&T puts the onus on consumers to determine the relative importance of the environmental performance of the handsets and the manufacturers that make them.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s what is: AT&T has just created the world’s 434th ecolabel (if you believe the tally of the Ecolabel Index).

Does the world really need another green label? Perhaps. But what it doesn’t need is the continued proliferation of brand-specific labeling. The more labels that cover the same product categories the more confusion and likely consumer indifference.

Last year AT&T competitor Sprint led the development of a standard for “environmentally preferred mobile devices” with UL Environment and has committed to certifying all handsets it sells with that standard. The AT&T labeling scheme uses some of the criteria from that standard, and blends in some others. The result is a proprietary set of hoops its suppliers need to jump through that are different from the hoops that may be set by other carriers.

Why is this a problem? Because suppliers are becoming overloaded with sustainability information requests and lack standard measures of environmental performance. In our research, we asked sustainability executives at manufacturers and retailers about the biggest challenges they faced in obtaining environmental sustainability information from their supply chains. The top answer? A lack of standard ways of measuring environmental performance, a lament shared by 62 percent of the respondents to our survey. The introduction of proprietary product rating standards only going makes this worse, and could well hamper rather than help the cause of driving sustainability in the supply chain.

AT&T said it introduced the eco-rating system in part because it wanted to show leadership. Going it alone, though, is an outdated mode of leadership, especially in this arena. A better model is the one embodied in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. In that organization, dozens of manufacturers and retailers, including direct competitors, came together to develop a single sustainability measurement standard for their entire industry. The coalition unveiled version 1.0 of that standard just this month. They’ve deferred the possible development of a consumer-facing label to a later date.

AT&T can’t really say for sure what impact the new labeling scheme will have on its supply chain. But it is hopeful that it will be good for the top line. According to market researcher NMI, which AT&T hired to help understand the marketing benefits of ecolabels and green seals, “seals increase purchase intent.”

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Free Webinar: Sustainability in the Supply Chain

Green Research is hosting a free webinar to share highlights of its latest research on the best practices, latest trends, and new tools for managing and improving sustainability in the supply chain.

Please register for “Sustainability in the Supply Chain: Tools, Trends & Best Practices? on Aug 9, 2012 11:30 AM EDT at:


The research was conducted over three months and drew on executive interviews, a global survey of sustainability executives, briefings with technology providers, and a review of public documents outline corporations’ sustainability initiatives.  Green Research recently published the complete results of the study in a report available for purchase and immediate download here.

Key questions answered by the research include:

  • Can companies improve sustainability in their supply chains without compromising their business goals?
  • What are leading corporate practices for improving sustainability in the supply chain?
  • How should companies assess supply chain sustainability management vendor solutions?

Who should attend?

  • Sustainability executives and practitioners
  • Supply chain and procurement executives
  • Corporate leaders
  • Sustainability and strategy consultants
  • Vendors of IT solutions
  • Non-governmental environmental organizations
  • Universities and sustainability research centers
  • Sustainability public relations and marketing agencies

Attendance is limited. Priority will be given to to retailers, manufacturers and their agencies.

Register now by clicking here.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

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Greener Products and the Pitfalls of Consumer Research

You sell a range of consumer products. There is a “green” story to tell consumers. But you don’t know the best way to tell it.

Or, your company has recently introduced new packaging or a new product formulation that has environmental benefits. But you don’t know how much consumers really care. Or whether the product changes are going to influence consumers’ purchase decisions.

You wish you knew the answers to questions  before the product teams actually designed the projects.

I recently chatted with a marketing director at a global consumer products company. These are the challenges he faces all the time. A few things are holding him back:

  1. The company’s market research is not well suited to the task. They do regular tracking studies to monitor the health of their brands. These are useful for identifying trends but not so much for understanding what is driving those trends.
  2. The brand managers are not always invested in the research. Like many companies, one department is creating insights and another department is supposed  to use them. Sometimes brand managers are thoroughly engaged in the commissioning of research, with a clear idea of how they will use the results. But sometimes they are passive recipients of data generated elsewhere in the organization. Brand managers are less likely to act on research they don’t feel they own.
  3. Key product decisions are committed before the research is done. Product teams and R&D are often selecting materials or tweaking packaging based on generalized directives or engineering concerns, not insights about what consumers value. By the time a product decision is locked in, it’s too late to influence that decision with consumer insights. The best you can do is learn how best to position what you’ve already done.

What should this company do? Here are a couple of recommendations:

  1. Use appropriate research tools. As the marketing director told me, consumers like all kinds of things. The challenge in crafting a message or designing a product is determining the relative importance of various product attributes, alone and in combination. A research technique called conjoint analysis is often used to help shed light on questions like this. But it can be costlier and more complex than other kinds of research, and many companies make use of it only rarely.
  2. Use research earlier in the process. The process of selecting materials is driven by engineering and cost concerns more than consumer preferences at a lot of companies. It can be really eye opening to employ a well-designed consumer research program to inform the product design and formulation process, alongside the harder criteria that companies tend to use.

What are your thoughts? Is your company doing this well?

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Focusing on Sustainability, Companies to Collect More Data from Suppliers

Executives See Path to Significant Sustainability Gains

New York City (July 24, 2012) – Green Research, a New York-based corporate sustainability research and advisory firm, today released a new study of corporate environmental sustainability practices and trends.  The study finds efforts to improve sustainability in corporate supply chains are hindered by poor data quality and a lack of measurement standards. In a survey of 30 senior sustainability and procurement executives at major companies globally, 62 percent of executives said their efforts to track supply chain sustainability performance are impaired by a lack of measurement standards. For suppliers already beleaguered by numerous information requests, things will get worse before they get better: 81 percent of companies plan to ask suppliers for more information in the coming year.

Executives Believe Gains Are Possible without Compromising Business Goals

Despite the challenges, executives are optimistic about the prospects for significantly improving sustainability in their supply chains. “Companies often lack direct control over their suppliers and sub-suppliers,” said David Schatsky, principal analyst and founder of Green Research.  “But new tools and management practices are empowering companies to drive improvements in supply chain sustainability.” Sixty-four percent of executives surveyed said their companies can have significant influence on their top suppliers’ sustainability performance.  Eighty-four percent believe their companies can obtain much better environmental performance from suppliers without compromising their companies’ business goals.

New Management Practices Profiled

Supply chain sustainability improvements will be made possible in part by the adoption of new green technologies throughout the supply chain but also by new management practices, Green Research found. The company conducted a series of exclusive executive interviews coupled with an analysis of public company disclosures to identify 10 supply chain sustainability best practices. These include setting specific goals; educating and supporting suppliers; and leveraging emerging standards to collect and analyze sustainability data from the supply chain.

Report Offers Vendor Assessment Guidance

The study also finds that a wide range of technology vendors and service providers have entered the market with solutions for helping companies collect, track and manage supply chain sustainability performance data. The study presents profiles of a dozen such vendors representing a range of approaches for addressing supply chain sustainability issues, along with a Vendor Assessment Framework companies can use to help them select an appropriate vendor. Nearly 40 percent of executives surveyed in the study said their companies were somewhat likely or very likely to acquire a new IT system to help with supplier sustainability information over the next 12 months.

The supply chain sustainability study is available for purchase online at greenresearch.com.

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The Impact of Apple’s Withdrawal from EPEAT

It’s hard to know why Apple made the decision to opt out of certification by EPEAT, the green computing standard, without hearing from the company directly about it. One thing is all but certain: the company made a considered decision to do what it thought was in the best interests of its shareholders.

The reality is that there is no single definition of a “green product.” The manufacture, use and disposal of IT products can have a wide range of environmental impacts. Some products may have excellent environmental performance in some dimensions–such as energy efficiency or the absence of toxic materials–but unimpressive performance in others. Apple has performed life cycle assessments of its products in the past and found that 91 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its products are traceable to the manufacturing and use phase. It traced just 2 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions  to recycling. It will be interesting to see how the new Macbook pro fares in an updated LCA.

Some organizations have green procurement policies that require the computers they purchase to be EPEAT rated. Apple’s move may make it difficult for these organizations to continue purchasing Apple products in the categories that EPEAT rates. Notably, this does not currently include tablets or smart phones, two growth categories for Apple. I have seen little evidence that individuals or small businesses consider environmental labels highly when deciding to purchase Apple products.

This move may ignite a debate about the definition of a green computing product, and it may drive discussion about how to define standards for newer categories of products like tablets and smart phones that are not currently addressed by EPEAT ratings and in which Apple dominates. Defining a standard there that excludes the market leader would make the standard less relevant than it otherwise would be.

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The Biggest Story Coming Out of Rio

You might have read about a mammoth conference held in Rio de Janeiro last month. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, was a gathering of world leaders, government representatives, corporations, NGOs and others to establish agreements to help “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection.” There were tens of thousands of attendees, including 57 heads of state; hundreds of separate events; and a blizzard of press releases and punditry.

I know few people who were optimistic that the event would yield inter-governmental agreements of any significance, and fewer still who think it delivered. Globally, politics and policy these days seem not to be equal to the pressing challenges facing society.  I prefer to see this as a slump in the civic sphere rather than some political terminal illness. But just because our politics don’t always work doesn’t mean that society can’t make progress.

That’s because policy isn’t the only force that changes society. The forces that are going to lead to a sustainable future are mutually interactive: Policy influences public behavior as well as attitudes; people influence policy and set expectations for the businesses that serve them; and business, of course, influences policy and people.

The biggest story coming out of Rio was the numerous commitments, many by corporations or corporate groups, to work toward sustainable economic development. Many corporations are in the game despite the lack of an adequate policy framework. The  UN Council on Sustainable Development counts more than “$513 billion mobilized in commitments for sustainable development, including in the areas of energy, transport, green economy, disaster reduction, desertification, water, forests and agriculture and a total of 692 voluntary commitments for sustainable development registered by governments, business, civil society groups, universities and others. ” The Natural Resources Defense Council has created a searchable and interactive summary of them here.

My problem with a lot of the commitments is that they are expressed in monetary terms, when the real challenges are better expressed in terms of carbon, joules, tons, or lives. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see all of this activity.


Filed under climate change, sustainability