CHANNELS    |    Behavior Change      Leadership      Products & Design      Supply Chain      Marketing & Comms      New Metrics    |    MORE

We're Only Human: Personal Concerns Weigh Heavily on Business Purchases

Image credit:

At Shelton Group we’ve been polling Americans regularly for nearly a decade to understand their attitudes and behaviors related to energy and the environment so we can best help our clients define and leverage their sustainability stories. Until late last year our studies were consumer-focused, though much of our client work is actually on the business-to-business side. So late last year we fielded our first-ever B2B Pulse study to better understand the role sustainability plays as business decision-makers are making purchasing decisions.

We spoke to a wide variety of decision-makers (facility and purchasing managers, CEOs, buyers, CFOs, etc) in a variety of sectors (business services, education, health care, manufacturing, etc) and found that sustainability does affect business purchase decisions. And what we found about how sustainability affects those decisions is either obvious or shocking, depending on your viewpoint:

Business decision-makers are people, too.

Suzanne Shelton,
speaker at
Sustainable Brands 2014
San Diego

We found that purchasing decisions are influenced as much, if not more, by the personal concerns and biases of the decision-makers as they are by their companies’ stated/tracked sustainability initiatives. Only 11 percent of the business decision-makers we surveyed said their companies have, or are developing, sustainability scorecards to guide purchasing. So most decision-making is happening without formal guidelines and, frankly, based on the personal preferences/biases/gut instincts of the person making the decision.

That means that whatever decision-makers are concerned about in their personal lives bleeds over into their business decisions. Reactions to questions about product content offer a great case-in-point. Specifically, product content (“product contains no chemicals of concern”) was rated the most important sustainable feature in product selection out of a list of 20 different claims, including third-party certification, recycled content, zero waste manufacturing, etc.

This, despite the fact that product content/materials toxicity avoidance landed midway down a list of 24 different sustainability initiatives for which companies have stated goals or are currently measuring or reporting — lagging far behind more popular initiatives such as recycling (70 percent) and energy efficiency (62 percent).

So, while few companies (only 17 percent) have a stated initiative around “avoiding chemicals of concern,” business decision-makers (63 percent) rank it as important to very important.

This could create a new move in the B2B sales playbook. Most of our B2B clients are working on how to integrate sustainability into their RFPs and sales calls, with some specifically training their reps to review prospects’ corporate sustainability reports to gain insight into their sustainability priorities before making sales calls. While that’s certainly a smart practice, it’s not enough. Sales reps should remember that business decision-makers “are people too” and, when appropriate, should integrate common consumer concerns, such as product content, into their sales conversations.

And product content concerns should also be top of mind in product development initiatives. In our experience, most B2B-oriented companies (outside of the food industry) focus primarily on product efficacy/performance and price point. Initiatives to incorporate safer content are often de-prioritized because most customers aren’t asking for it and non-toxic content alternatives often cost more. But just like consumers, few business decision makers are knowledgeable enough to ask. If you create a product differentiated by safe, non-toxic content, it could raise awareness in your industry and resonate with personal concerns — giving you a competitive edge.

Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors. The company polls Americans on an ongoing basis to understand their drivers and obstacles to adopting more sustainable… [Read more about Suzanne Shelton]

  Sign up for SB Newsletters
Get the latest personalized news, tools, and virtual media on a wide range of sustainable business topics in your inbox.


User login



Most Recently Viewed in the Library

[Campaign Video]
Sally Uren
David North
Raphael Bemporad
Joseph Staton
Charlie Attenborough