Struggling to sell sustainability? Train for a 4 minute mile

February 28, 2014

Grace Palazzolo says that the race is on to bring sustainability to mainstream consumers – and that the winners will reap large rewards.


They said it couldn’t be done.

Legend held that the human body was simply not capable of running a 4-minute mile. It wasn’t just dangerous; it was impossible.

Further legends hold that people had tried for over a thousand years to break the barrier.

In the 1940s, the mile record was pushed to 4:01, where it stood for nine years – maybe the experts had it right. Perhaps the human body had reached its limit.

The breakthrough: On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, running the distance in 3:59.4. As part of his training, he relentlessly visualized the achievement in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body.

Barely a year after Bannister’s accomplishment, someone else ran a mile in under 4 minutes. Then some more runners did. Now, it’s almost routine. It’s not unheard of for good school runners to hit the mark.

So what might this long and slightly convoluted ramble mean for those of us who are trying to figure out how to bring sustainable messages and products to mainstream consumers?

Well, first we must understand that it took a sense of extreme certainty for Roger Bannister to do what was considered un-doable. He managed to create certainty without proof.

And one of the barriers we face at the moment is that we have a lack of proof: proof that sustainability is what people want; proof that if they don’t really want it, we can get them to want it and buy it if businesses are brave enough to go down this road.

And then we need to recognise that once Bannister crashed through this barrier and the rest of the world saw that it was possible, the previous record that had stood for nine years was broken routinely.

So once the visionary businesses take the risks, put in the leg work, possibly endure some set back but eventually crack it… everyone else will pile in behind.

Following the logic, I think we can draw some helpful parallels.

So far it’s been an ongoing struggle to sell sustainability to consumers. Bits and pieces, here and there, like H&M’s Conscious Collection or Innocent’s new ‘Chain of Good’ campaign. But no-one so far has scaled this up.

And while consumers aren’t really demanding it, it’s hard work getting companies to push it up their own agenda in a meaningful way. After all, they are in business to give us what we want, and if the focus groups don’t ask for it, why bother? (As an aside I think that for many of us working in this area the penny has finally dropped that people aren’t asking because they lack information – if after all you don’t know what to ask for, you’re not going to ask for it!).

To go back to Roger Bannister and his unassailable certainty, I think that most people are certain that the global social and environmental challenges we face are not going away any time soon. And as they start to affect all of us, more often, and in an increasingly dramatic fashion, I feel pretty certain that we will all start asking more questions and looking to spend our money with those companies that we believe are helping find the answers.

And again, like dear old Roger, I think that if we can see the finish line, then we are also capable of visualising how we can get there. And once the first few pioneers get it right and show that not only can it be done, but when it is done it creates greater value for all, we can be certain there will be a stampede following not far behind.

Grace Palazzolo is an Associate Director at Corporate Citizenship.