Understanding your public when it comes to sustainability

Sustainability has become an important business principle for companies, governments and communities. To communicate about sustainability or other business issues effectively, it is common practice to make use of market segmentation techniques. In the current edition of the Journal of Environmental Psychology there is an engaging study about the development of a new sustainability segmentation model, that includes the social, environmental and economic aspects of sustainability.

The study profiled the people in Wales on their views on sustainability and sustainability-related issues such as personal values, climate change, energy security, community and place. Six different group-segments were created from the study. These group-segments are:

  • Enthusiasts: highly engaged in all segments;
  • Pragmatists: engaged in all segments, but less ideological;
  • Aspirers: high engagement on economic sustainability ;
  • Community Focused: engaged with the community and economic and social sustainability;
  • Commentators: engaged with economic and social sustainability and high on energy security;
  • Self-Reliant: disengaged with all aspects of sustainability.

In practice these different group-segments talk differently about sustainability and also respond in a different way to messages regarding sustainability.

Although the study shows good progress on market segmentation in relation to sustainability, there are some things to consider in my opinion. The first thing that comes to my mind is the question: in what business situations do we engage people about sustainability in general? Sustainability covers  many different unrelated topics varying from environmental, social to economical aspects, which are in their turn also very broad concepts. Only in very general talks or high level strategies we talk about sustainability in general. In these situations we probably only reach out to the Enthusiasts for a moment. To engage more people for a longer period of time we need to formulate a more specific message. How specific is dependent on the situation. In every business- or public policy decision there is a trade-off to be made between the economy, society and the environment. Communication about these sensitive trade-offs in our modern society, should therefore not be based on one specific segmentation. Market segmentation should therefore be interpreted more as a process related to the question at hand, where many segments have to be made to better understand your audience.

Norbert Bol


Poortinga, W., & Darnton, A. (2016). Segmenting For Sustainability: The Development of a Sustainability Segmentation Model from a Welsh SampleJournal of Environmental Psychology.

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

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