RIP Green Marketing?
By Richard Romano
Published: May 16, 2011
With the exception of some energy-saving devices, no green product has captured more than a tiny slice of the marketplace, at least in the U.S. Think about it: No environmentally preferable car, carpet, cleaner, cosmetic, clothing, coffee, credit card or cell phone has captured more than 2 percent of its respective market. In most cases, sales of green products represent well under 1 percent of any given category. Even where green products do seem to be selling, it’s not primarily because of their environmental benefits. Organic foods? It’s about what we put into our bodies. Hybrid cars? They reduce costly trips to the pump. Energy Star TVs and appliances? They cut energy costs. It’s not really about the planet.Why is this?
consumers have made it crystal clear: They don't want to change, at least in the name of Mother Earth or the greater good. Of course, we change our buying and lifestyle choices all the time: how we communicate (email, mobile phones, texting, Twitter), how we shop (what's a “record store”?), what we eat and drink (“functional foods,” anyone?), and what we drive and wear and do. But those choices benefit us personally, today -- not some far-off forest or future.This is true. For all the bruiting about of how electronic media are supposedly “greener” than print (which regular readers know I take issue with most strenuously), the fact is that individuals and companies have embraced new media because they are inexpensive, convenient, and immediate. The article also raises an important point, that consumers may not be directly supporting so-called “green” brands, but companies have simply become more sustainable in general. Not all, to be sure, and not always dramatically, but the green press is chock full of stories (many of which I post links to here or in the weekly Going Green Digest) of companies improving their environmental footprint, retooling their businesses, and making demands of their own supply chains. They don’t always advertise it, but many are moving in that direction. How do we then evaluate these companies?
Pushing companies to be transparent and accountable for their environmental (and social) impacts. Transparency has become the new lingua franca in sustainability -- a demand for companies to account for and report their impacts, commitments, goals and progress. It’s at the company or brand level that this makes sense: Why offer a few good, eco-labeled products if the organization behind them is headed in the wrong direction? Transparency is a fundamental building block of a green economy. It can build trust in companies, and ward off claims of greenwashing. Being transparent is no longer a question for consumer-facing companies. The only question is whether they do it themselves or have it done for them. There are several terrific examples of the latter: Greenpeace’s ranking of supermarkets on sustainable seafood; Climate Counts’ ranking of companies on their climate goals and performance (disclosure: I’m on Climate Counts’ board); the Electronics Takeback Coalition’s ranking of computer companies’ e-waste efforts; the Union of Concerned Scientists’ ranking of automakers; and Greenpeace's (again) ranking of technology companies. Each of these compares companies and brands using rigorous and consistent criteria, helping to illuminate who’s really walking the talk. They don't just look at product attributes. they look at the whole enterprise. This isn’t market-speak; it’s accountability.And, by extension, printing companies that have some sort of certification from a reputable and recognized organization. Consumers aren’t going to pay a premium for special “green products,” and sales figures and poll results have borne this out. And anyone in the printing industry can tell you that few print buyers will pay a premium for “green” printing. Consumers—and even businesses—tend to be skeptical of green claims (within and without the printing industry), sometimes rightly, but often wrongly (there is a difference between being legitimately skeptical and contrarian and just being ornery). But this doesn’t mean we should all just give up. So, yes, I agree that green marketing may in some respects be a fool’s errand, but companies can simply “be better.” We have the technology. Look at auto emissions. Improved emissions control systems have made it so that in some parts of the country (L.A., for example), car exhausts are literally cleaner than the surrounding air. Many everyday products today are simply produced more sustainably than they used to be, and recycling, reuse, and reclamation are all getting better. It’s a natural evolution, and one of those things that, Hair Club for Men-like, is happening so gradually we hardly notice. This is not to say the battle is won, but we’re at least moving in the right direction (I mix my metaphors but not my recyclables). A lot if it will also likely be generational, especially if younger business leaders grow up with a more sustainable mindset. One of the GreenBiz blog commenters hit the nail on the head:
No, 'marketing green' doesn't work Yes, intelligently integrating social and sustainability insight into product innovation and brand positioning does.What he said.