To Sell Green Products, Target the Middle Class

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Middle-class consumers are more likely to buy green products than either the rich or the poor.  

Humans buy a lot of stuff, and that takes a toll on the environment. It results in resource extraction, pollution, and waste.

Business leaders are becoming increasingly focused on selling products with a reduced environmental footprint. These are often referred to as green products; they’re non-toxic, consume less energy, result in less waste, or incorporate recycled materials.

These products can have a positive impact, but they’re not always an easy sell. If you’re someone tasked with selling a green product, this article will help you grow your market share.

Research says “to sell green, target the middle class”

New research by Li Yan (Capital University of Economics and Business), Hean Tat Keh, (Monash University) and Jiemiao Chen (Monash University) shows your green product is more likely to be purchased by middle-class consumers than by upper class or lower class consumers.

Their six studies, including a combined 1606 participants, suggest that consumers who think of themselves as being middle class are the most likely to choose green products over conventional products. The products they studied included eco-friendly batteries, recycled paper, and energy-saving light bulbs.

When you add in the fact that the middle class is the largest segment and the main driver of consumption in most countries, the advice is clear.

 “If you’re marketing a new green product, go for the middle-class segment first,” advises Hean Tat Keh.

 Class is actually a tricky thing to define objectively – it’s determined by a combination of income, education and occupation. But what really shapes people’s behaviour is the class they feel they belong to, as opposed to any one particular indicator.

How marketers can use this information to sell green

Adanma Onuoha, Marketing and Communications Officer at the Network for Business Sustainability, has built her career around digital marketing. She offers concrete advice for finding middle-class consumers and positioning your messaging.

How to find middle-class consumers:

  • Paid digital campaigns: If you’re running paid digital ads, identify middle-class consumers by their income, browsing, and consumption patterns and target your ads to them.

  • On-site marketing: Display billboards or other physical signage in areas of town populated by the middle class.

 What to say to middle-class consumers once you find them:

  • Appeal to values: “To get a middle-class consumer, like me, to buy a green product, which is often more expensive, the brand would have to tap into my moral sense,” suggests Onuoha. For example, if you’re selling recycled toilet paper, remind people that 30% of the world’s trees are at risk and that using recycled toilet paper reduces the need to clear natural forests.

  • Create community: “Humans have the innate sense of wanting to belong to a community,” says Onuoha. Help them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. For example, you could create a product Facebook group to share your product’s environmental impact stories. Or allow consumers to accumulate badges, which they can share with their family and friends.

Why the middle class is greener

The research team points to two factors to explain why the middle class is more likely to buy green than the rich or the poor:

  1. Buying green helps people fit in with their peers in some ways, and helps them stand out from their peers in other ways.

  2. If you have a strong need to either fit in or stand out, you’ll feel awkward buying green. And how people feel about these things varies by social class.

How buying green helps people fit in or stand out

When most people think of green products, they think: “Better for the environment, but lower quality and more expensive.” (Have you ever seen recycled toilet paper for twice the price of regular toilet paper and felt conflicted about a purchase?)

For this reason, we tend to think of people who buy green as altruistic and caring. This helps those consumers fit in with their peers – because who doesn’t like a caring person?

But being green also helps people stand out. Before being willing to pay a premium for green, you probably need to understand why it matters in the first place. (What’s the big deal about recycled toilet paper anyways? How does it help the Earth?) This level of environmental understanding typically comes from either formal education or intentional information seeking.

Additionally, green products do tend to cost more, so buying them can softly signal higher income and status.

For all these reasons, buying green helps us stand out. It waves a flag that says, “I understand why green consumption is important and I can afford it!” 

Needs differ by social class

“To some degree, we all need to fit in and to stand out,” says Li Yan. “But the degree to which we value one or the other depends on where we stand in the social hierarchy.”

Loosely speaking, the less money you have, the more you’ll value fitting in. The richer you get, the more you’ll value standing out. Those in the middle value both to a similar degree.

Here’s why, and how it impacts green consumption.

At the lowest incomes, there’s the basic challenge of affording things. Because buying green costs more, or people think it costs more, they are less likely to splurge for it on a tight budget. Then, because most people buy the regular toilet paper, those who do buy the recycled stuff may be frowned upon. And that’s not something most people in this social class want to feel.

When people have less money, they rely more on those around them – family and friends. So, research shows that their need to ‘fit in’ is high. “They don’t feel like they can rock the boat,” says Jiemiao Chen. “They can’t consume stuff that has them stand out from, or be rejected by, the group.”

In contrast, at the highest incomes, consumers tend to be well off and don’t depend on as much support from others. This means the rich have a lower need to belong. Rather, they tend to be more individualistic, liking to stand out and be seen as different. As green products become more mainstream and less likely to differentiate the purchaser, the rich will favour rarer, luxury items – gold, not green.

For the middle class, things are “just right” for green consumption. Having taken care of their basic needs, these consumers have enough money left to splurge on more expensive green products. At the same time, green consumption also signals their education and affluence.

They don’t have the same individualist worldview as those in the upper class, and so are more comfortable buying products that their peers also have.

The result: The middle class are more likely to snap up green products. They’re the ones buying eco-friendly batteries, recycled paper, and energy-saving light bulbs.

Read the article

Yan, L., Keh, H.T., & Chen, J. 2021. Assimilating and differentiating: The curvilinear effect of social class on green consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 47 (6), 914-936. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucaa041

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  • Chelsea spent her master’s degree studying ecosystem health in Kenya and is the former Operations Manager for The Network for Business Sustainability. She’s also a certified life coach. Chelsea now splits her time between her two passion projects; sustainability writing and editing, and helping over-stressed mothers improve their mental health and find more joy in life.

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