So is the green marketing bubble getting ready to burst?
Depends who you ask. In survey after survey, consumers continue to indicate their desire for more eco-friendly goods and services -- and their willingness to pay a bit more to make it happen. But what consumers say and how they behave aren’t always the same.
Take the case of Whole Foods, at one time the darling of both organic food enthusiasts and investors. The company averaged a robust annual growth rate of almost 11 percent between 2003 and 2007. This year hasn’t been as kind. While sales are projected to grow about 2.6 percent this year, profits declined by 30 percent last quarter. Longtime customers have taken to calling the stores “Whole Paycheck.”
Chalk a lot of this up to a summer of high energy costs, which have been steadily nibbling away at most family pocketbooks. Sure, we know that loaf of 18-grain, hand-sprouted bohemian bread is better for us than the generic store brand. But when it comes to filling the gas tank and our kids’ stomachs, the purchasing decision is really quite simple. At the same time, that not only thing happening here.
Green consumers are getting greener
Consumers are actually pretty smart when it comes to weighing cost and benefit. In the two years since the climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth rekindled conversation about the environment, we’ve all been bombarded with green products and messages. Websites like mine -- Lighter Footstep and EcoTech Daily have popped up everywhere, and there’s no shortage of green information.
People have been paying attention. You know what they’ve learned? Environmental issues aren’t all that simple.
The more you dig into green, the grayer it gets. Sure, there are plenty of things which are easy to grasp. Reducing consumption is always green. So is energy efficiency. Beyond this, things get a bit more complicated -- and subject to marketing abuse.
It ain’t easy being green
Just to see how convoluted things can become, let’s choose the lowliest of products: toilet paper. On most store shelves, you’ll find at least one brand made from recycled materials. You’ll know it by the garish green packaging and the big labels which says “Saves Trees.”
As it turns out, most toilet paper isn’t made from virgin fiber. It’s manufactured from the sawdust and scraps left over from other production -- material which may have otherwise simply gone to waste. Beyond this, most paper manufactured from virgin fiber comes from trees grown just for that purpose. In terms of raw acreage, there are more trees in North America today than fifty years ago.
So recycled toilet paper an exercise in greenwashing, right? It’s still not that easy. All those farmed trees may look like forests to us, but nature sees things differently. Pulpwood stands are monocultures, unable to match the diversity of the natural forests they may have displaced. Monocultures can’t offer wildlife the habitat they require, which is one of the reasons so many species are under pressure. Finally, a few companies -- Kimberly Clark, for one -- are, indeed, buying old-growth timber for paper production.
And we’re talking toilet paper. These issues become more complex with the product: A Toyota Prius may reduce harmful emissions, but the nickel mining required for its battery packs causes immense environmental damage. Corn-based biofuels are renewable, but drive up food prices. No wonder consumers have become wary of green marketing claims.
What’s the take-away?
Green marketing is more than pretty rain forest images and simplistic claims. If your company is riding the eco bandwagon, here a few things to keep in mind [unordered list]:
- Do your homework. Hire a specialist. Talk to green leaders. Master the complexity of green issues. Expect green marketing to face more regulatory scrutiny in the coming months. It would be far better to pass on the green sector than to jump in without knowing how deep the water might be.
- Make very specific and verifiable claims. “Saves Trees” sounds great, but “Not Made from Old Growth Forest” is both effective and open to less rebuttal. You’ve assisted the consumer -- and repositioned the competition. Those other folks aren’t cutting down boreal forests to make toilet paper, are they?
- If there is reputable green certification in your field, get with the program. LEED building standards, for instance, are meaningful. So is Energy Star. If your trade sector doesn’t have brand-name green certification, consider helping to organize one.
- Engage in the green conversation. This sounds like marketing speak, but allow me to assure you that green consumers are both inquisitive and vocal. If you don’t engage them, they won’t trust you. Be prepared for criticism, evaluate it fairly, and allow your customers to teach you. You’ll find they are a powerful and renewable resource if you listen.
- Be in it for the long haul. There will be a winnowing out of opportunistic marketers who view green as a selling point, rather than a systematic process. Their exit is your company’s opportunity to thrive.
Green marketing is really just the prelude to ethical marketing, something which will come to guide the way we manage products from raw materials to retail. But that’s a topic for another day.
Chris Baskind is an environmental writer and the Publisher of Vida Verde Media, a green lifestyle company. He’s a regular contributor to EcoTech Daily and Lighter Footstep, and can also be contacted through his personal site.