Demand drives ‘green marketing,’ but some see room for ethics

Ottawacitizencom_jpegOriginally posted Sept. 27, 2007
by Shannon Proudfoot at The Ottawa Citizen

Kermit the Frog famously lamented the difficulties of being green, but
now it seems everyone in business is clamouring to be exactly that.

Taking their cue from consumers, companies are jumping on the
environmental bandwagon, anxious to present themselves as friends of
the Earth. Food, automobiles and electrical appliances are obvious
candidates, but the green rush in marketing extends to some decidedly
unlikely areas.

Cadbury Schweppes recently announced an "absolute
commitment" to sustainably produce confectionaries such as Dr Pepper,
Dairy Milk and Halls throat lozenges.

BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest arms-makers, is touting its
lead-free bullets and fuel-efficient fighter jets, presumably for
waging environmentally friendly warfare.

Even Anne of Green
Gables became a little greener this summer, when a Summerside, P.E.I.
musical inspired by Canada’s favourite redhead purchased carbon credits
to offset its travel impact.

"We’ve all anecdotally seen an
explosion of companies trying to wrap themselves in the green cloth,"
says Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada.

Momentum
has been building for a few years, he says, but the last year brought a
"sea change" in public concern over the environment, and marketers have
followed consumers’ lead.

Now that the environment is the pet
cause of every politician and CEO, he says Greenpeace’s role is
shifting from awareness-builder to watchdog. The big challenge is
helping consumers distinguish "the real McCoys from the posers," Mr.
Cox says, and the confusing patchwork of environmental certifications
in Canada is not much help.

That opens the door to
"greenwashing," a practice in which companies slap vaguely
Earth-friendly claims on goods or services of dubious legitimacy.

"It
is a problem because it confuses the issue," Mr. Cox says. "It makes it
more difficult for consumers to make informed decisions and it
increases people’s cynicism." A recent Ipsos Reid poll revealed that
almost two-thirds of Canadians (63 per cent) believe that when a
company touts a building product as green, it’s just a marketing ploy.

At
the same time, nearly one-third of homeowners (30 per cent) say they
don’t fully understand the benefits of a product advertised as
environmentally friendly.

Mr. Cox believes consumers are finally
paying attention because environmental damage has gone from being an
abstract theory to a tangible reality. Ordinary people have seen balmy
winters sparking mass layoffs at ski resorts and smoggy summers forcing
wheezing children into emergency rooms, he says, and that’s hard to
forget even in the aisles of the grocery store.

"The reality is really coming to people’s doors," He says. "This isn’t about habitat for polar bears anymore."

It’s
that consumer demand and the accompanying financial rewards that are
driving the green marketing movement, says Nicholas Eisenberger,
managing principal with GreenOrder, a New York-based sustainable
marketing firm.

Even so, he says there’s room within a savvy
business for altruism and ethics, and the powers that be are not immune
to the concerns of the world around them.

"Companies are run by
people, and people don’t want to go home to their children and say, ‘I
helped to destroy the planet, and it was fun,’" he says.

But Joel
Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com, says some companies are
undergoing Earth-friendly makeovers quietly or even in secret.

To
explain why, he provides the example of Levi Strauss & Co., which
started making its jeans with two per cent organic cotton a few years
ago but initially refused to discuss the change with him.

Mr.
Makower says the company finally admitted they were keeping quiet
because touting that small organic upgrade would have meant
highlighting the environmental havoc wreaked by the other 98 per cent
of their denim.

That kind of revelation can spark a backlash rather than a pat on the back from consumers, he says.

"When
companies talk about the things they’re doing greener, it often
illuminates problems the public didn’t even know they had, and that’s a
risk," he says.

There is some speculation that the current green
obsession is simply a marketplace fad that will pass like so many
others, leaving no lasting impact on people’s habits or the products
they buy.

Those in the field, however, say they’ve seen a
long-overdue shift in mindset that’s unlikely to regress — even if the
environment someday ceases to be front-page news.

"To some extent, green marketing is an overnight success that was 20 years in the making," says Mr. Makower.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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