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Our new mission: make sustainability sexy

Thinkshift | October 1, 2014

Sexy sustainability. You always put those two words together, right?

Stop laughing. Sustainability is a lot of things, but for most of us, sexy isn’t one of them. Thinkshift is on a mission to change that. Our inspiration: Polls consistently find that people want products and services to have sustainable attributes, and they plan to buy them. Just as consistently, actual purchases don’t match up with stated intentions. Just last week, the National Geographic Society and GlobeScan released the results of their biennial Greendex survey of sustainability-related beliefs and behaviors under the headline “Increased Fears about Environment, but Little Change in Consumer Behavior.”

Why the disconnect? There are factors aplenty, ranging from how much people know about sustainable solutions to how much people care (just enough to hit “Like,” not enough to change habits). But marketing may be the easiest to address, with potentially the quickest results.

Targeting the id: virtue doesn’t sell
People promoting sustainability usually opt for a do-gooder framework, but if decades of id-targeted advertising have taught us anything, it’s that virtue doesn’t sell. That’s a problem, because we need it to sell. Now. The alternative approach—promote everything appealing about the product except its sustainability—also falls short. We need the qualities of sustainability to be sexy: make sustainability itself desirable, and we can accelerate the necessary shift to a clean economy.

To be clear, we’re not advocating selling sustainability with underwear models. When we say “sexy” we’re referring to magnetic attraction—that thing that turns your head and inspires an “I want that” reaction.

The sustainability world is full of cool new technologies, novel business strategies, clever systems that turn waste into value and other alluring features, so the idea that sustainable products, services and approaches can be sexy shouldn’t be surprising. And maybe it’s not: since we’ve started talking about sexy sustainability, the most common reaction has been laughing recognition followed by “Yes, that’s exactly what we need.” But then hesitation sets in: “We won’t be taken seriously.” “Sexy means Budweiser beer girls.” “We want people to appreciate this because it’s sustainable.”

Barriers to making sustainability sexy stem largely from a failure of nerve or the faith of true believers. When you come to sustainability from a deep moral perspective, it’s hard to acknowledge that simply advocating “do the right thing” is not going to prompt widespread adoption. We wish! But if you stick with moralism and rationalism, you’re sticking with a niche audience. For sustainability to be mainstream, it needs to be sexy.

Engineering the shift to sexy
So how are we going to make that happen? Thinkshift is building a platform to promote a shift to marketing that makes sustainability desirable.

Sexy susty roundtable To launch the effort, we’re holding a roundtable discussion with leaders in business, design and advertising who have insights on what it takes to make sustainability sexy. Look for a full report on the session in November, followed by articles that dig into the topic. Sign up for our mailing list to get the report in your in-box.

Sexy Susty Marketing Awards™ In 2015 we’ll hold a competition for the sexiest sustiness out there—including advertising, integrated marketing campaigns, and more. Look for our call for entries early in the new year—but feel free to email nominations right now.

Cracking the sexy susty code We’re not just winging it—we’ve isolated the elements of magnetic attraction and are developing a framework for sexy sustainability marketing. We’re also working on a book that will detail our research on marketing and desire, describe our sexy susty framework, and provide product, service and campaign case studies.

Naturally, we’ll be writing and speaking about this regularly, here and on all the many channels. Any thoughts or examples? Send them our way! And follow us @thinkshift to add your two cents. We’re looking forward to lots of insightful and perception-shifting conversations in the months ahead.

  1. Hear, Hear! A vital mission it is and we are happy to lend our support. Frankly, I would be happy with hip, cool or trendy right now too.

    Nancy Zavada

  2. […] we embarked on our new mission to make sustainability sexy, we promised we weren’t going to wing it. We’ve been working on cracking the code for sexiness […]


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