Are women more likely to act on their environmental inclinations than men? Last week, OgilvyEarth issued a report titled Mainstream Green: Moving sustainability from niche to normal in which the authors explore some of the reasons why the so-called “green gap” persists between what consumers say and what they actually do around sustainable living. Indeed, the gap is wide – the study reported that 82% of Americans have green intentions but only 16% are dedicated to fulfilling these intentions.
Among other insights, the study revealed that the barrier to adopting sustainable behaviors is even higher for men. 82% of Americans surveyed said going green is “more feminine than masculine.” More men are identified along a green continuum as “Green Rejecters”, the least likely to exhibit sustainable behaviors, while women dominate the other end of the spectrum, called the “Super Greens” for their ability to walk the talk when it comes to environmental commitments. The OgilvyEarth team concluded that the perception that green is more feminine is likely holding back men from visible green behavior like using reusable grocery bags or carrying around reusable water bottles.
While we don’t have benchmarking data around this particular issue, it does seem that the feminization of environmentalism might be a relatively recent phenomenon – when I think about the early years of the environmental activism, the Monkey Wrench gang of the ‘60s and the more contemporary Earth First-ers saving whales, the images conjured were decidedly male – rough and tumble men who might have taken styling cues from Paul Bunyan. Environmentalism was a fight and the stakes were no lower than saving Mother Earth.
Today, environmentalism is a softer pursuit. With growing acceptance around key environmental issues and corresponding policies to encourage stewardship, it seems that now sustainability is less about going to war and more about nurturing the things we care about – which tends to be thought of as women’s work. To make sustainable behaviors more mainstream, the study’s authors argue that brands need to “make eco-friendly male ego-friendly.” As the study puts it, sustainability could use its Marlboro Man moment.
But, what about brands seeking to fortify their relationship with women? Not all brands require masculine appeals. I asked one of the study’s authors, Graceann Bennett, about the implications of the feminization of environmentalism on women’s brands. She said the study found that, for any brand, using sustainability as the primary sales driver is often a mistake. This is even more true when marketing to men; “Don’t use an image of a polar bear hugging your product if you want to reach men,” she explained.
She also said that appeals to our sense of altruism just don’t work, and is another place where many brands miss the mark. It’s far more effective to appeal to our sense of hedonism, our desire for things that make us happy.
Given their green-leanings, women are more open to environmental messages. “With women, green can lead a bit more,” explained Bennett. But she also cautioned that green appeals shouldn’t focus on individual obligations, thus furthering a sense of guilt. Rather, green can be more effectively used to create a sense of romance about a brand, as Aveda has done with its line of sustainable beauty products. A division of Estee Lauder, Aveda uses its environmental commitment to deepen its brand story and heighten the pleasures derived from its product. Rubbing licorice root on your hands is a more pleasurable experience than petroleum jelly — it smells better and feels more exotic. It serves to heighten that sensory experience, so it works.
Where sustainable brands fail is when their products fail on performance – women are highly discerning and want their sustainable purchases to deliver as well as other options. For the most part, women aren’t willing to compromise product performance for the sake of sustainability. For brands reaching women, it is easier to be green but important to remember that some of the brand experience is color blind.