Going Green? Plant Deep Roots

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Inconvenient Truth: Marketers’ Environmental Claims Need Substance or It’s Little More Than Fertilizer

The greening of business is a good thing:
It improves the chance of bequeathing an inhabitable world to future
generations; provides myriad revenue opportunities; and offers a
powerful way to connect with consumers developing a strong
environmental conscience…

It’s only natural then, that green already has become the marketing
platform of choice for thousands of companies, among them General
Electric, Wal-Mart, BP, S.C. Johnson, Honda and DuPont.

Yet going green is a perilous business, especially for those whose
actions aren’t as substantive as their ads. The way this wave of planet
hugging differs from the last one, which petered out in the ’90s, is
simple: scrutiny and accountability. Token environmental platitudes so
boastfully touted won’t cut it. Glossy green print ads and TV spots
will be easy targets for critics, and will be viewed as exercises in
"greenwashing" or "eco-pornography" if their roots are not sufficiently
deep.

"Most marketers know just enough about the world of green to
be dangerous to themselves and others," said Joel Makower, author of
"The Green Consumer," published in 1990, before green was the new
black, and a marketing consultant whose clients have included General
Motors Corp., GE and Stonyfield Farms. "This is not simply about doing
what you’ve always done and giving it a green sheen. You are talking
about very sophisticated and complex concepts that combine unbelievably
difficult science with deep emotional connections, and there’s a
tendency to put a green smiley face on everything."

More than a fresh coat of (lead-free) paint
In a time when a
simple Google search can unearth reams of information, even the
best-meaning marketers are open to attacks by watchdog groups. "We are
certainly aware that’s how the drill goes down," said Jim Adams,
executive director-marketing at Chipotle. "You start doing good things,
and people expect you to do more, and they want you to do more. That’s
why we do these things incrementally. There aren’t many things we dive
into head first," he said. "You become a bigger target. When the
underdog becomes the top dog, you want to knock them down."

It’s a reality evident in Levi’s launch of the "Eco" organic-cotton
line in mid-2006. As it slowly added organic cotton to its products for
several years until it reached 100%, the company did not tout the
addition. Why? It feared drawing attention to data from the USDA and
EPA that a third of a pound of chemicals — fertilizers, herbicides,
insecticides and fungicides — are used to grow a pound of cotton in
the U.S.

Levi said it has other reasons. "It would be impossible for us
to go all organic," said spokeswoman Amy Jasmer, noting that only 1% of
the cotton grown in the U.S. is organic. "The opportunity is to try and
drive demand."

Continuing challenge
But even as consumer demand spikes —
organic-cotton apparel sales are expected to jump to $2.6 billion in
2008, according to Organic Exchange — this represents a continuing
challenge.

"Do you really dare put your head above the parapet by touting
your greenness and attract very knowledgeable consumers who are going
to crawl all over your business … and Greenpeace and every other
environmental group you can think of?" asked Mike Longhurst, senior VP
at McCann Erickson, London, and a spokesman on sustainability issues
for the European equivalent of the American Association of Advertising
Agencies. "If consumers think they can catch you telling a half-truth,
they will."

For consumer-product marketers, it represents a huge challenge
globally: "You can’t go talking about green products in a developed
market and meanwhile you are selling that old formula in China and
India and polluting rivers."

‘Green-motivated’
And while some studies show many consumers
still simply don’t care (a July 2006 study by Landor Associates showed
that 58% of the general population considers itself "not green
interested"), in today’s age of blogs, word-of-mouth and protest e-mail
blasts, it’s the 17% identified in Landor’s study as "green-motivated"
you need to worry about.

This growing segment of shoppers goes to sites such as CoopAmerica.org,
where a quick search of any brand name or company turns up a
"Responsible Shopper Profile." Plug in Target Stores, and up pops a
lengthy accounting of the retailer’s environmental sins, with links to
campaigns such as one by Rainforest Relief decrying the retailer’s use
of endangered tropical wood in outdoor and children’s furniture.

Certainly sites like this aren’t mainstream, but even a
marginally concerned consumer might launch a search before buying.
There is now a National Green Pages — an online equivalent of the
Yellow Pages — and Sierra Club-brand mutual funds, where only
companies with top-notch environmental records make the cut.

Amid the noise, category by category, a series of battles for
the title of greenest brand rages. Within each category, the battle
typically swirls around owning a single word or term. For paint, it’s
the elimination of volatile organic compounds. The U.S.’s three largest
paint sellers — Lowe’s, Home Depot and Sherwin Williams — have added
paint lines without VOCs.

You’re probably not immune
Don’t think you’ve got a
lightning-rod issue in your category? Maybe it’s just not on your
radar. In marketing’s environmental era, the interconnectedness of
everything becomes painfully clear.

Palm oil, once praised as a "renewable fuel," experienced a spike in
demand (partly driven by food companies eager to find a solution to
trans-fat bans) but now is linked to the potential extinction of the
orangutan and the sun bear. So what once appeared a godsend has ended
up nothing of the sort.

Palm oil’s problems have been amplified as environmentalism
goes mainstream. The Columbus Zoo has asked vendors to eliminate
products containing palm oil from unsustainable sources, said Barbara
Revard, director-program planning. "We’re not asking consumers to
boycott it; we just made a decision in our purchasing power," she said,
noting an alert has been sent to 200 zoos in the U.S. to do the same
thing.

Not your problem? Nearly 10% of all supermarket products use palm oil.

A new cost of entry
Another threat raised by environmental
marketing is parity. Green eventually will cease to be a competitive
edge and emerge as another cost of entry, no matter what your industry.

Home Depot, for example, beat its competitors in the
green-labeling game with the launch of its ambitious Eco Options line
of more than 2,500 products. "Once we get someone hooked on Eco
Options, why would they go to another store that doesn’t offer
something similar? It’s about choice," said Roger Adams, senior-VP
chief marketing officer at Home Depot. The question is, however, what
will happen when Lowe’s and other giants offer similar choices —
possibly at lower prices.

Interestingly, despite the ambitious program, Mr. Adams said
he does not see "green" as the defining trend in marketing today. "But
it has a lot of room for growth, and we think it’s the right thing to
do," he said, pointing to a double-digit increase in sales of compact
fluorescent light bulbs and a 30% jump in sales of EnergyStar
appliances in 2006.

C’mon, Ted
Then there’s the question of truly making a
difference or simply marketing one. With apologies to Ted Turner, it’s
a stretch to tell consumers he made "the world a better place," as his
restaurant-chain ads maintain. "Eat great. Do good. Ted’s Montana Grill
is more than a restaurant; it’s just what the world ordered. Recyclable
paper menus, paper straws and reusable glass are just a few of the ways
we do our part to help protect the environment. You can do yours simply
by enjoying any of our authentic, made-from-scratch entrees." Reusable
glass? You mean those wine glasses every restaurant uses?

Credibility lies in the creative execution, and invoking Gandhi is fine
if you’re a civil-rights leader, but not if you’re a clothing retailer.
White House Black Market prints its catalog on 30% post-consumer-waste
paper, a self-described "small stride" announced though a famous quote
by the Buddhist leader: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Such lofty environmental platitudes can easily attract a
backlash of skepticism. Wal-Mart has taken pains to loudly tout its
sustainability initiatives, yet critics lambaste it for weakening the
"organic" label. They say Wal-Mart’s organics are sourced in China, not
on small-scale farms, and transported thousands of miles, spewing
carbon emissions en route.

If you talk to "deep green" consumers, the only way to stop
global warming is to drive down consumption. And that’s never going to
jibe with the role marketing and advertising plays: to drive
consumption, increase sales year over year and move the proverbial
needle by selling more, not less. Small, incremental changes aren’t
enough, but that’s essentially what most brands are pitching.

Being upfront
The smartest campaigns bring the green issue to
the forefront. HSBC has launched a "checking account with a
conscience," in which customers must pay three bills online to qualify.
In exchange, customers get a green kit, which includes compact
fluorescent light bulbs, magazine subscriptions, coupons and a reusable
grocery bag.

"We don’t pretend we are perfectly green or perfect environmentally,"
said Kevin Martin, head of customer marketing at HSBC. "At the end of
the day, we have an aspiration to help our customers be more aware of
the environment. It’s not about HSBC being green."

But as awareness spikes, so, too, will skepticism.

Just ask GE, which in June 2005 launched its lauded, expensive
and beautifully produced Ecomagination ad campaign. GE has done a lot
to improve the environment: Its photovoltaic technologies (that’s solar
power to most of us) and wind turbines are reducing some nations’
dependence on fossil fuels; its purification systems are reducing water
waste; and its work on more-fuel-efficient and quieter jet and
locomotive engines has been hailed as significant in many quarters. Yet
Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, slams the campaign as
"astonishing hypocrisy."

What particularly irks him is GE’s promotion of its "green" locomotives in a series of spots and a video on Ecomagination.com
about its Evolution Series Locomotive, in which narrator Kevin Kline
asks: "What is progress? When increased performance and energy
conservation successfully coexist." Meanwhile, Mr. O’Donnell said, GE
has lobbied to weaken a series of EPA proposals to reduce smog and soot
levels and replace decade-old standards for diesel locomotives.

Troubling disconnect
That disconnect between marketing and
reality is what Mr. O’Donnell finds most troubling, especially if it
"lulls consumers into thinking everything is taken care of." He added,
"Do they become anesthetized by advertising and propaganda?"

The campaign, in reality, talks a good deal of platitudes,
touting businesses that have yet to reach a critical mass. Yet, some —
including GE — argue it should be credited with creating demand and
building a market for so-called renewable fuels.

It is wise to remember critics will not cease to raise
concerns about the true impact of green initiatives. Dozens of brands,
for example, have incorporated carbon offsets — where consumers can
calculate the carbon impact of a purchase and then pay to have a tree
planted somewhere in the world — into their marketing platforms. Honda
offers a month of offsets to U.K. buyers of music acts that promote
carbon-free trees. Travelocity users can calculate the carbon footprint
of a flight and pay to offset it.

So what could be bad about that? The "positive impact is
canceled out by justifying and condoning a negative one: implying that
we can consume at current guilt-free rates as long as we have the money
to salve our consciences," according to U.K.-based Corporate Watch.

To borrow a word from the movement, any marketing program
should be "sustainable." If you don’t really make a difference, don’t
market as if you do.

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