Before your company tries to enter the complex landscape of designing sustainable products, you need to know your audience. Which types of consumer are interested in sustainability? And what’s behind their interest and motivation? The framework introduced below will help you to understand who these consumers are – and how to tap into each group’s inherent needs.

Awareness around sustainability and, in particular, the misuse of plastics was once a niche interest amongst environmental groups. But over the past two years, momentum has grown exponentially with thanks, in part, to ‘the Attenborough effect’ – the huge cultural resonance of the famed broadcaster and natural historian’s Blue Planet II and Our Planet. But while ‘single-use plastics’ has become a watchword of sustainability, there’s a lot more to it than that – the space includes a diverse and changing landscape of consumer beliefs, expectations and attitudes.

We define sustainability as a ‘wicked problem’. It is complex and region-specific, multi-faceted and ever-evolving – just think of all the nuances in local legislation and logistics involved in recycling alone. It’s even tougher to handle as a trend: difficult to predict, and yet, if a brand handles sustainability poorly, disastrous. It’s no wonder so many brands accidentally overlook the motives of end consumers and their conscious, and unconscious, usage habits.

A single definition of ‘green consumers’ is insufficient – it must be considered as a spectrum. The diverse needs of sustainability can’t be addressed with a one-size-fits-all solution. So to cater to these consumers, brands need to identify where on that spectrum their target audience lives. Our framework consists of four consumer archetypes, determined by how much effort consumers are willing to put into sustainability, and how knowledgeable they are about its particular nuances. And we’ve included some suggestions of how these different consumers can be served – Encouraging both the brand and the consumer to act more sustainably throughout the process.

The four sustainability consumer archetypes:

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Dedicated

‘I won’t buy anything that’s not specifically sustainable.’

The ‘Dedicated’ archetype represents the growing number of consumers actively seeking more sustainable products and services to adapt the way they currently live. They are willing to go the extra mile in some cases by prioritising the environment over convenience or, perhaps more importantly, by paying a ‘green’ premium for products that align with their values and boost their sustainability credentials.

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The most effective way of targeting these greenies is by providing an abundance of reliable information surrounding the product or service, empowering the user to make choices that maximise their impact.

Take Loop as an example: a new initiative launched by TerraCycle in partnership with global FMCG companies such as P&G and Unilever, working towards a circular economy for everyday essentials ranging from personal care to food and beverage products. Loop delivers products in hardwearing, reusable packaging. Once the product is consumed the packaging is collected, cleaned, refilled and sent to another user, making the process more sustainable than that of single-use packaging, without significantly inconveniencing the consumer – however, a premium pricing structure does apply.

When targeting the ‘Dedicated’:

  1. Be transparent and honest – they see straight through false claims and ‘greenwashing’
  2. Provide as much credible sustainability information as possible
  3. Demonstrate empathy for both the environment and humanity: Sustainability and ethics go hand in hand, one brand embodying this mantra is ‘who gives a crap’ - 100% recycled paper products who give 50% profit to building toilets in a fun way

Naive

‘I put everything in the recycling bin because I care!’

‘Naïve’ consumers try to be as green as possible, but fall victim to misinterpretation or a lack of education around sustainable practices. These are the consumers who, for example, recycle jars without cleaning them out, or removing the label.

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The ‘Naïve’ archetype includes the ‘wishful’ recycler – consumers who put every scrap of waste they have in recycling, in the hopes that it will be recycled. (Such behaviour often contaminates entire batches of recycled material and does more harm than good.)

The most effective way to target these consumers is through education, providing clear on-pack instructions explaining how to appropriately recycle, refill or reuse. Coca-Cola demonstrates this in an exceedingly simple way by printing ‘Please recycle this bottle’ on the cap of each bottle, leaving little room for interpretation. However, this execution isn’t entirely effective as there is no reference to removing the label, cleaning the bottle and recycling with the cap secured.

Providing the right information to consumers can often be enough to turn ‘Naïve’ users into fully ‘Dedicated’ consumers.

When targeting the ‘Naïve’:

  1. Prioritise the education of consumers through clear communication on packaging and services
  2. Articulate how a product should be disposed of on-pack
  3. Show the consumer how to reuse or repurpose a pack at the end-of-life

Apathetic

‘I used to be an eco-warrior, but what difference did it make?’

Some of the consumer groups found within the ‘Apathetic’ persona may have once been ‘Dedicated’ or ‘Naive’. Struggling to single-handedly stop global warming, they’ve instead seen the situation worsen, leaving them to ask, ‘What difference can one person make?’

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Such consumers may be more open to the idea of the 3 R’s (recycle, reuse and reduce) if the process became incentivised. To many consumers, the value of ‘planet benefiting behaviours’ may not outweigh the financial strain on their bank accounts.

The most effective way to target these consumers is through incentivisation. Dusty Knuckle pizza company offer a reusable metal pizza box for a one-off payment of £2 which then saves the consumer 50p on each purchase. The user gets a financial benefit and reduces the number of disposable pizza boxes used.

Aside from financial recognition, some companies are choosing to showcase their sustainable and ethical impacts to inspire and motivate the consumer. Take Allbirds for instance, a relatively new shoe manufacturer who prioritises the sustainability of their products. Using low carbon materials and investing in new technologies to further reduce environmental impact, their current goal is to be carbon neutral by the end of the year, with larger plans to eventually be carbon negative. All of this information is readily available and built into the brand narrative to engage with, and celebrate the consumer.

A little encouragement goes a long way. Providing consumers with suitable incentives can transition users from ‘Apathetic’ to ‘Dedicated’ in certain instances.

When targeting the ‘Apathetic’:

  1. Incentivise and monetise a process to increase participation
  2. Motivate a disillusioned consumer by showing them the difference your brand is making, to acknowledge the tangible change
  3. Simplify sustainable processes to ease involvement for consumers with diminished motivation

Passive

‘Being sustainable is too hard – it’s just not for me.’

The ‘Passive’ group is complicated to target, consisting of consumers who, for a variety of reasons, don’t actively participate in sustainability or recycling. Perhaps because of difficulty accessing the means to recycle, or even just a lack of time, money or interest. Alongside these users are people who have become disillusioned by sustainability. More often than not this is because they feel disassociated from the system and the parties involved. The result is a group of consumers who feel that they needn’t act sustainably because others will. It can be very challenging to transition ‘passive’ consumers into any of the other areas indicated in this framework.

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 For these consumers, brands need to make packs and products free from consumer engagement. One example is Ooho, a drinks manufacturer that has replaced its packaging with an edible composite constructed from seaweed and plant materials that degrade in a matter of weeks, in a bid to reduce the negative impact of packaging.

Another is Saltwater Brewery who have developed E6PR ‘Edible Six-Pack ring’ – an edible, biodegradable pack that is ocean-safe, aimed at combating the adverse effects of plastic in the oceans.

Both of these companies have designed packaging for the worst-case scenario – plastic waste deposited in nature. By re-engineering their packaging, they can ensure that any waste produced doesn’t harm nature or the environment at the end of life.

 When targeting the ‘Passive’:

  1. Design packaging for the worst-case scenario – litter
  2. Remove responsibility from the consumer to offset this consumer type
  3. Reduce the amount of packaging that reaches the end consumer

In a nutshell

As alluded to throughout each section, it may be possible to transition consumers from one archetype to another if specific consumer needs are understood and addressed within the design of the packaging. ‘Naive’ and ‘Apathetic’ consumers are both within reach of becoming ‘Dedicated’ consumers with the right activations, whether that is through education or incentive. The harder archetype to nudge into a new space is the ‘Passive’ consumer, for whom packaging designed for the worst-case scenario is often more prudent than a business trying to change the consumer’s mindset.

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Ben Ackerley is a design and innovation consultant at Plan in London. He specialises in FMCG front-end innovation, with a focus on consumer packaging and sustainability. You can read more articles on Plan’s website and subscribe to their in-house magazine