One of the issues I have when working with businesses that have a ‘green’ offer is trying to explain that only a small percentage of the general population will share their passion for a green purchase. Most people will still make their decisions on price, performance, appeal and convenience before they get to whether or not it has any specific environmental or ethical aspects. Generally, it will only be up to 5% of consumers that will select on these sustainability credentials as a top priority.

There is a whole range of research on sustainable consumerism and how people’s preferences can be categorised, from those with ‘pragmatic acceptance’ to the ‘sprouts’ and the ‘naturalites’. One of the more recent reports from The Netherlands focused on the home decorations market across Europe. It began by estimating that the market for sustainable goods in this sector is about 1% of the total. But it is a growing market due to general increased awareness and the fact that big companies such as IKEA or department store John Lewis are taking these niches very seriously. The report goes on to break down the different types of consumers that exporters, particularly from developing countries, could do well to consider.

In this report the ‘trendy creatives’ like the fun-factor. They want quirky, well-crafted goods that have stories to tell. The sustainability aspect needs to be visible. They want to see the country of origin and like ethnic styles. The ‘smart affluents’ like a cleaner aesthetic that gives them clever, practical and well-designed solutions to their needs. They want transparency about sustainability factors behind the brands and expect value for money. And lastly, the ‘design purists’ buy nothing but the best. Timeless designs, outstanding finishes and the finest materials. They also have an interest in production techniques. They make carefully considered choices and sustainability is all about quality.

So is the lesson here, don’t bother to be more sustainable unless you want to sell to the 1-5% that are interested? No, that is not the point. With increased legislation on the use and disposal of materials; increased expectation of environmental performance in supply chains and procurement; new markets that seek low energy solutions and new technologies; reputational gains for those businesses that value health and well-being; and new areas of innovation for those that can see the potential in facing the long-term global realities, sustainability is not about targeting a consumer niche.

The lesson here is about how sustainability credentials are communicated. Here we have a few basic barriers to deal with. 1) We still have a situation where there are no clear and agreed definitions of what is meant by ‘sustainable design’, ‘green architecture’, ‘design for all’ or any number of other terms that are used in this area. This leaves any statements open to misinterpretation. 2) Along with dismissing this as nothing more than a niche, many still feel that designing to meet environmental and social issues is about a supporting a political agenda. Unless you relish a political debate, this one can be difficult to challenge. 3) Mainstream experience of sustainability can be those products and services that shout their ‘moral’ credentials despite having poor performance, higher prices and being hard to get hold of. They don’t always make good ambassadors for the mass of mainstream activity that is going on behind the scenes in most business sectors.

If you are happy with a niche market, that’s fine. Otherwise, like the best businesses, keep an eye on those niches and other new activities out there. Be curious, open and experiment with them. Take this learning and embed the best of it into your core business to create great new products and services that can meet the demands of the 21st Century. See sustainability issues as a way to design for a bigger future share of the 95%. The greatest impacts, and the greatest returns, lie there.