Submitted: The Two Sides Team March 13, 2013
Sometimes its hard to face reality, especially when a dream is so alluring. And the alluring dream of green marketing is this: that consumers would cast a vote in favor of a more just and sustainable world whenever they shop. But the reality has been vastly different. For well over 20 years, consumers havent been willing to vote with their dollars. The reasons are many and complex, but the result is clearcut: 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.
March 12, 2013
by Joel Makower, via LinkedIn
Sometimes its hard to face reality, especially when a dream is so
alluring. And the alluring dream of green marketing is this: that
consumers would cast a vote in favor of a more just and sustainable
world whenever they shop.
But the reality
has been vastly different. For well over 20 years, consumers havent
been willing to vote with their dollars. The reasons are many and
complex, but the result is clearcut: 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, its not primarily because of their
environmental benefits. Organic foods? Its 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. Its not really about the
Green marketing should not be confused with public service
campaigns aimed at getting people to change habits and adapt a more
environmental consciousness. Changing habits — toting reusable shopping
bags, biking or taking public transit instead of driving, conserving
water and electricity, taking care of parks and greenspace, and all the
rest — is a fundamental part of cultural shifts. Green marketing, in
contrast, is aimed at getting people to buy stuff that is better for the
Green marketings failure hasnt been for lack of
trying. Activists, community groups, government agencies, faith-based
organizations, schools, scout troops, universities, and, of course,
companies have been encouraging shoppers to make greener choices for
years. And, as Ive written about ad nauseum,
pollsters and market researchers have fueled the fire, telling us all
the while that large numbers of consumers want to make green choices
when possible. A few do. But not many, and not often.
plenty of blame to go around. Companies’ marketing efforts have been
largely half-hearted, humorless and uninspired. Green products
themselves have been variously underwhelming, overpriced, inconvenient,
ineffective or unavailable. Too often, green marketers have attempted to
prod consumers to act by relying on guilt or by encouraging people to
save the Earth, neither of which has turned out to be particularly
aspirational or appealing.
And 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
anyone?), and what we drive and wear and do. But those choices benefit
us personally, today — not some far-off forest or future.
The economic doldrums havent helped. The New York Times reported in 2011
that sales are down of even the few green products that had been
selling, such as green cleaners, as consumers looked for ways to cut
costs. Thats been a key part of green marketings downfall — the
sustainability tax associated with premium-priced green goods, as
Ogilvys Freya Williams, wrote in GreenBiz.com.
Bear in mind Walmart shoppers have an average of $65 a week to spend
on groceries for their families, she notes. If you are trying to work
within a $65 budget, there’s just no way you make that kind of premium
work, however much you might want to. She argues that green products
should cost less, not more.
It is important to note that all of
the above relates only to consumer-facing marketing. The
business-to-business landscape is wholly different. A wide range of
things companies buy — building products, industrial cleaners, IT
equipment, paper and forest products, appliances and some industrial
feedstocks — are being marketed effectively for their environmental
attributes. Companies and other buyers (like government agencies,
hospitals and universities) are more willing to change their buying
habits, and their buying power can make for attractive economies of
scale. Witness the continued market growth of green buildings, biobased
packaging, alternative-fueled fleet vehicles and more.
consumer-focused green marketing is just not working. It never really
did. It was a noble experiment in social and market transformation. It
has largely failed. And continuing to think it will somehow make a
difference isnt just folly, its counterproductive. It’s time to
declare defeat and move on.
Here are five reasons why green marketing should be put to rest.
1. Its not working. For all the hue and cry by green marketers over the years, shoppers seem as conflicted and misinformed as ever, as Ive pointed out repeatedly
through a myriad of polls and market research studies. They trust the
brand, but not the company behind the brand, say researchers, though
they trust the marketing claims the company makes on its package. Is it
any wonder that, when it comes to making green choices, consumers are
dazed and confused?
2. It remains a niche activity.
Most of the major product purveyors have opted out of green marketing,
or have dabbled in it so timidly as to relegate it to a single brand or
product line. Of the 10 largest advertisers in 2010 (Procter &
Gamble, AT&T, General Motors, Verizon, News Corp., Johnson &
Johnson, Pfizer, Time Warner, General Electric and Walt Disney), only
two — GM and GE — have tried in earnest to market products as green.
One of those, GE, is largely B-to-B.
3. Its not moving the needle.
After all these years, green marketing isnt making any real
difference. Its not changing consumer habits. Its not causing a
significant shift in the kinds of goods and services companies are
selling. And its definitely not making a dent in addressing climate
change, water and food security, biodiversity, energy prices, or any of
our other serious environmental and economic challenges.
theres a new generation of companies that stand to make a difference,
even though they dont typically market themselves are green: the
growing corps of so-called collaborative consumption companies. They
facilitate the sharing or reuse of products and services — car-sharing
or home-trading services, for example — as well as the exchange of many
goods, from food to fashion, and the barter of — well, just about
These firms embody what sustainability is all about:
reducing needless consumption, getting maximum value from physical
goods, connecting people, creating community, sharing. These firms
typically dont market themselves or their services as green or
sustainable. Theyre simply better.
not alone. Many technologies are, relatively speaking, greener: iTunes,
ebooks, email, PDFs, and others have radically dematerialized and
decarbonized commerce. But theyre not marketed that way. Theyre just
So, whats marketed as green isnt moving the needle, while whats moving the needle isnt marketed as green.
4. Its deluding people into thinking theyre helping.
Green marketing creates a false sense of engagement and action — that
we can simply shop our way to environmental health. And it often creates
an excuse for consumers to not do more. We all know (or are related to)
someone who, consciously or not, believes that buying organic foods,
recycling newspapers or driving a hybrid car offsets the rest of their
personal environmental impact. That is, doing these things somehow makes
the world safe for their other purchases, lifestyle and travel choices.
Of course, it doesn’t.
Were all guilty of this, and for good
reason: There are only so many changes or sacrifices most people are
willing to make for the greater good. And if others aren’t doing these
things, why should we?
5. Its missing the bigger story.
The bigger story is this: Most of what we buy has become greener in
spite of our unwavering shopping habits. As Ive written about since the
late 1980s — and as GreenBiz has covered daily since 2000 — companies
are making significant, sometimes dramatic, changes in how they produce
what they sell. They’re far from sustainable, but these companies are
getting better and better. And theyre not marketing these things.
in point: Over the past 45 days, GreenBiz has written stories about
significant commitments and achievements made by some of the biggest
consumer companies and brands: Anheuser-Busch, Aveda, BMW, Coca-Cola,
Dell, Fedex, Ford, H&M, Häagen Dazs, IKEA, Intel, JPMorgan Chase,
Microsoft, Nestlé, Patagonia, Pepsico, Puma, Unilever, Walmart, Wells
Fargo. Thats 20 companies across a range of sectors, and I havent yet
broken a sweat. All since February 1. There are hundreds of these
developments every year.
I can assure you that almost none of
these commitments and achievements is going to show up in product
marketing materials or ads. If anything, theyll be mentioned deep in a
corporate website or buried in an environmental report. Theyre not
being done to sell more stuff. Theyre being done because they cut
costs, eliminate waste and inefficiency, improve quality and engage
employees. That is, for sound business reasons.
companies green, or even good? Not likely. But theyre making a bigger
positive impact than most consumers will ever know.
marketing isn’t changing consumers’ minds, is ignored by the biggest
marketers, isn’t changing things, misleads consumers and doesnt give
companies credit where its due. Are there any good reasons to keep
Im not suggesting for a minute that consumers opt out
of trying to nudge companies, markets and economies toward more
sustainable products and practices. But relying on green marketing isnt
the way to make change. Most of it is irrelevant and unhelpful.
helpful? 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. Its 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
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: Greenpeaces ranking of supermarkets on sustainable seafood; Climate Counts ranking of companies on their climate goals and performance (disclosure: Im on Climate Counts board); the Electronics Takeback Coalitions 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 whos really walking the
talk. They don’t just look at product attributes. they look at the whole
enterprise. This isnt market-speak; its accountability.
transparency to be effective means consumers will have to put aside
their innate skepticism — or, if they prefer, hold their noses — and
support leadership companies, even if the companies in question are far
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