Can Your Wallet Save The Planet?

In their efforts to slow down the relentless ravaging of earth’s resources and prevent it from overheating, gurus and champions have tried several approaches. 

There was the Sober Adult Talk. Surely, if you show people the evidence, they will see the light and mend their ways. While that won Al Gore the Nobel, today that approach has made the environment the 19th-most important issue for people in the U.S., or somewhere thereabouts. People can only care for so long about an event so far in the future. 

Then there’s the Catholic Guilt approach. Fingers pointed, polar bears displayed, forest fires exemplified as the descent into hell. Our brains are wired to screen out just such unpleasant images.

No, “hair-shirt capitalism,” as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute calls it, will not work. 

What does work? Nudges. The behavioral economics term popularized by Sunstein and Thaler in their book of the same name suggests, to oversimplify greatly, that redesigning systems around the way people actually tend to act is more fruitful than trying to change their behavior. For example, putting the veggies within reach increases the chances of schoolchildren eating healthier, simply because we tend to reach for whatever is closer. 

Two clothing brands embody the principle of letting people do what they will and feel good about it. Patagonia and H&M. Yes – not usually mentioned in the same sentence. And they go about it in different ways. But the similarities hold an important lesson for marketers. 

For almost two years, Patagonia has been urging its customers to buy less. Campaigns urge them “Don’t Buy This Jacket” and to extract as much mileage as possible from every item of clothing they own. The company even operates used-clothing stores on its site and eBay. An impressively, it makes many of its jackets and other items out of recycled materials, uses mostly solar power at its offices and donates millions of dollars to environmental causes. 

It also sells a hell of a lot of $700 parkas. In fact, in the two years since the “Buy Less” campaign, consumers have bought more – increasing corporate revenue by more than 30%, according to BusinessWeek

And then there’s H&M. For a “high street” brand dependent on pulling in younger shoppers, the backlash against the wastefulness of “fast fashion” was a threat it couldn’t ignore, especially after the Bangladesh disaster, since H&M makes more of its clothes in Bangladesh than any other brand. 

The company responded with a “new lamps for old” promotion: you can bring any old clothes into a store and get a small discount on your purchase of shiny new H&M ware. How small? Well, an armful of college T-shirts and shorts will get you a voucher for 15% off one item, with a limit of two a day. When you add in the fact that H&M actually sells a lot of this stuff (I can’t imagine to whom), its effective discount is about 10% -- and it gets less the more the shopper buys. Not a bad deal for a brand besmirched with the worst kind of PR exploitative business practices can buy. 

But the point here is not to moralize. If we are going to think green, we have to stop trying to change hearts and convert everyone into believers, and instead work on shifting behavior. And if you want to shift behavior, here are the rules:

  • Don’t make people work too hard.
  • Even better, get them to do something they love doing and then make them feel virtuous for doing it.

As we grow more conscious of our rampant over-consumption, the trade-in -- be it of an expensive parka, a smartphone, or a barely used cocktail dress – can be the permission we need to give ourselves to splurge again. And as long as we ensure that the companies offering those promotions are  actually investing in sustainability programs, the planet might even come out ahead.

1 comment about "Can Your Wallet Save The Planet?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Ruth Barrett from, September 11, 2013 at 10:59 a.m.

    There are multiple approaches to solving complex problems so advice "to stop trying to change hearts and convert everyone into believers, and instead work on shifting behavior" is either /or thinking when both work together well. We don't need an exit strategy that flies in the face of very successful track record of missionary work on the part of believers.

Next story loading loading..