By David Voxlin is SKIM’s director, sustainability and behavior change. 

Given today’s increasingly greenwashed competitive landscape, it’s difficult to stand out, remain relevant and drive consideration and conversion at the same time. Optimizing product sustainability communications is one way to help your brand achieve these simultaneous goals.

There is also an inherent conflict many marketers face when developing sustainability-related messaging: Sustainable products and services primarily benefit society in the long term, rather than individual consumers in the short term.

How can brands reconcile this conflicting duality between personal short-term goals and broader long-term goals? How can your brand best provide product sustainability information to consumers in an authentic and impactful way?

We conducted a global meta-analysis of sustainability claims across consumer goods products to explore how brands can create more relevant and relatable product communications. Here we reveal how you can best develop product sustainability messaging to drive consideration and purchase – with the ultimate goal of helping create a more sustainable society.

Read on for tips you can apply to strengthen your sustainability claims and on-pack messaging today.

What defines product sustainability messaging?

At SKIM, we define sustainability as “meeting the needs of today, without compromising the needs of tomorrow.”

This includes messaging that relates to the following categories:

Resources efficiency: What goes in.

Communications centered around resource efficiency, e.g., energy consumption, renewability, materials used, etc.

Waste/pollution reduction: What comes out.

Communications based on reduction of waste/pollution, e.g., plastic waste, CO2 emissions, oil spills, etc.

Ethical practice: Who it affects.

Communications about a company’s ethical practices, e.g., fair trade/labor, animal welfare and overall social responsibility.

These categories are applicable across industries including consumer goods, durables, textiles, technology, retailers, food and beverage and services.

A global meta-analysis on product sustainability messages

When executed well, sustainability-related messages are a powerful tool to set your product or service apart and grow your brand.

How do consumers respond to product sustainability claims?

Which on-pack messages are likely to trigger product consideration, and which should be avoided?

The SKIM sustainability team conducted a meta-analysis of 1,700+ global product/packaging claims, certifications and labels to answer these questions. We examined product communications in consumer goods categories, including food, personal care and cleaning.

The tested claims and labels varied across the three sustainability categories, for example:

  • “Made with 100% recycled materials.”
  • “Contains biodegradable ingredients.”
  • “Not tested on animals.”

The communications meta-analysis included research studies with claims, labels and certifications around both product efficacy and sustainability. “Regular” product claims were included to provide a comparison benchmark for sustainable claims. The meta-analysis also included communications studies where the tested claims were 100% focused on sustainability.

Note: While we have also tested dozens of claims related to “natural” products/ingredients, we did not include such claims in our meta-analysis, since “naturalness” may not necessarily contribute to a more sustainable tomorrow.

3 tips for product sustainability communications that drive consideration and brand loyalty

We combined the insights from the meta-analysis, with SKIM’s communications guidelines grounded in consumer psychology, to develop these tips for stronger sustainability-related product communications.

1. To maximize product consideration, reassure consumers that your product or service is both functional and sustainable.

Combining sustainability communications with efficacy/functionality communications is key to driving product consideration. Though the sustainable aspect of a product or service is of great importance, the functionality of it (i.e., efficacy for personal care/home care and taste for food) should remain the primary focus of the on-pack messaging.

Product functionality is the main motivation for consumers to purchase the product/service in the first place; moreover, focusing on the product’s functionality gives consumers reassurance that no compromise was made on the product/service’s primary job.

This messaging approach offers a double benefit to the consumer, e.g., the tastiness of the product, plus feeling good about contributing to a more sustainable future.

2. Offer more value to the consumer by ensuring the sustainability element benefits are relevant to both the consumer and the product category.

It is extremely important to highlight the right type of sustainability benefit in order to provide value to the consumer. If your product claims are not relevant to either the product category or the target consumer, your communication will be less successful and, in some cases, can even backfire.

To illustrate this, consider three scenarios.

Scenario A: A kitchen cleaning spray with the claim, “Helps reforestation of the Amazon.”

Even if the target consumer is concerned about the state of the Amazon, the sustainability benefit (“Helps reforestation of the Amazon”) fails to be relevant to the product category, as it is not apparent how this benefit connects to the cleaning spray. Thus, this benefit does not add value.

Scenario B: Vegan chips (which is considered to contribute to the “ethical practices” category of sustainability).

The majority of chip shoppers are most likely not vegan and therefore this benefit is not relevant to all consumers. Here the sustainability benefit misses the mark to add value again. In this scenario, this type of claim can even backfire among non-vegan consumers who are led to think the product is not relevant to them at all.

An important side note to brands offering the vegan benefit: you can make scenario B successful by selectively communicating to those who would find this benefit relevant. Through our meta-analysis we found the best practice of communicating vegan-friendliness in the food category is via a label, rather than directly verbalized on the most eye-catching part of the package. This still draws the attention of consumers who seek vegan products, without alienating those who do not.

Scenario C: A hand sanitizer with the claim “100% recyclable packaging.”

This is a sustainability product claim that successfully offers added value due to its relevance to the product (recyclable packaging) as well as the consumer (helps reduce landfills). Our analysis and knowledge of consumer psychology prove that the relevance of sustainability messages is essential to drive action with consumers.

3. Showing your brand’s genuine commitment by using 100% in the communication is a powerful tool to build consumer trust and brand loyalty.

As green claims become more ubiquitous, it’s more imperative to show your brand’s dedication to the end goal, rather than merely attempting to jump on the latest trend.

When considering product sustainability communications, keep in mind that expressing commitment matters!

For example, when presenting a recyclability benefit to consumers, avoid claims such as “Made with 60% recycled plastic.” While 60% is objectively better than 0%, this claim leaves consumers to wonder about the remaining 40% and whether the recycled amount is significant enough to have any impact. Therefore, this communication might not seem as beneficial to the consumer and could backfire in terms of drawing attention to the fact that it is not entirely recyclable. Consequently, we recommend to mainly communicate sustainability benefits where you can deliver in full.

Applying consumer psychology to further optimize sustainability communications

As mentioned earlier, these sustainability tips were developed by combining the meta-analysis insights, along with consumer psychology. Tapping into consumer psychology can be an effective way to optimize product content, messaging and visuals – and the realm of sustainability messaging is no different.

When considering how to optimize product content relative to the topic of sustainability, it’s important to keep our proven Brand Communications Guidelines in mind. Many leading brands, e.g., Unilever, Google and Kellogg’s, rely on these evidence-based principles to create product messaging and visuals that drive product consideration and conversion.

We hope these tips help you create more meaningful connections with consumers, drive consideration, maintain relevance and exhibit authenticity in an increasingly sustainability-focused world.

As with all product communications, there are nuances specific to consumer segments, product categories and regions that are also important to consider. If you want to explore further how sustainability messaging resonates in your specific market, feel free to drop us a line. Our sustainability team would be happy to team up to tackle those questions.

About the author:

David Voxlin is SKIM’s director, sustainability and behavior change. He helps the world’s leading brands accelerate their net-zero strategies through better understanding their customers and how to create positive behavior change.

Voxlin started his career at the World Wildlife Fund working on sustainability policy before entering consultancy at Material. He founded Craved, a food-tech startup selling locally produced craft food and drink in London, before joining SKIM. Voxlin holds a MA in Legal & Political Theory from UCL, and an MSc in Demography from The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.