Why Doesn’t Green = Better?

Two steps forward jpeg Joel Makower takes a look at why green isn't yet synonymous with better in the marketplace.  He states that it will continue to remain a niche market and idea until this changes and will be unable to impact the many environmental problems that are dependent on business and the public's acceptance of it. 

Posted July 26, 2009

By Joel Makower , Two Steps Forward

So many green products, so little progress. At least, that's how it seems most days. As we report in GreenBiz.com
— and have for the past decade — the progress is undeniable: Companies
are embracing green practices as never before, and doing so at a
deeper, more holistic level. It's no longer just about "greening up."
It's about doing better.

Better. It's a word I've been thinking about lately.
And as I look at the landscape of sustainability, the green economy,
and green marketing, I'm struck by how much of what's greener isn't
necessarily better, at least not in the ways that matter to most
people. And until "green" is synonymous with "better," it's destined to
remain marginalized, incapable of fomenting change at the scale and
speed necessary to address climate change and other pressing problems.

What does it mean to be "better"? Obviously, it means different
things to different people, and the definition can shift depending on
the topic, the day, and the circumstance. Here, in alphabetical order,
is a decidedly incomplete list of attributes that could reasonably be
deemed as "better":

  • cheaper to buy
  • cheaper to own
  • enhanced features
  • healthier
  • higher performance
  • improves my image
  • innovative
  • less wasteful
  • more convenient
  • more durable
  • more stylish
  • repairable
  • reusable
  • upgradeable
  • uses less energy

. . . or just plain "cool."

I'm sure there are dozens more adjectives and attributes that could
be added to this list. And most all of these focus on an individual's
needs, and possibly that of his or her family or neighbors, but not
much on one's community or beyond. Each of those is likely to have its
own definition of "better."

Using whatever definitions you choose, I defy you to scan the green
marketplace — the products, services, companies, communities, jobs,
government policies, and other things that claim some environmental
attribute — and see how they measure up to your list.

Think about green cleaners, clothing, computers, cosmetics —
whatever. How many definitions of "better" can you find? Are their
price, performance, and other attributes truly an improvement over the
status quo? Or is what's "better" simply the way they make you feel? If
so, is that enough to justify their purchase?

How about green energy? Green vehicles? Green furnishings? Green
appliances? Green light bulbs? While each of these has positive
attributes, not many are demonstrably "better" from the standpoint of
providing benefits or value propositions that most shoppers care about
and can afford, in addition to their environmental benefits.

Some green things are better. Green buildings can be cheaper to
operate, cheaper to build, more pleasant and healthful environments,
and may contribute to happier, healthier, and more productive
employees, students, or residents. Greener health care, too: Medical
professionals that hew to principles that reduce toxic materials in
their practices and are generally more efficient can produce better
results for their patients. I'm sure there are other examples of
products and services where green equals better. But these tend to be
the exceptions, not the rule.

And some better things are greener, even though they may not be
marketed as such. The iPod and iTunes, for example, represent a
dramatic dematerialization of music, movies, and more. So, too, with
Amazon's Kindle and books. They're decidedly greener, but that's not
how they're marketed, or why people buy them. They're better — cooler,
more convenient, higher performance, cheaper, innovative, and provide
more capabilities than the technologies they replace. (True, they're
not without environmental impacts; nothing is.)

Given the marketing and promotional materials I seen on a regular basis, not to mention the surveys I read about how consumers are absolutely
interested in making green choices when they shop — I don't think many
marketers understand the need for "better." They believe that being
green is good enough. And that can work: Most committed green
consumers, I suspect, go with the faith-based notion that "green"
equals "good" — or, at least, "good enough."

But many mainstream consumers believe that "green" equals "worse" —
that making environmentally responsible shopping choices means making a
sacrifice in quality, affordability, convenience, or some other
attribute. A relative few are willing to make such sacrifices in the
name of a healthier planet or a better world. But not many are. And
they won't do so until green = better.

I'll admit this is a very selfish view of the world. It assumes that
most people, when making purchase decisions, don't think much beyond
their own immediate needs, or those of their family. And while there
are exceptions to that (and I'm sure that you, dear reader, are among
those who always consider the greater good), the vast
majority of consumers focus primarily on their immediate needs and
interests. Which is why most green products remain niche products, and
likely always will.

What will it take to change this? What does "better" look like in
your company and industry? What will it take so that your products and
services become the no-brainer choice — that they are better in any
number of ways that directly benefit consumers as well as the

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Joel is co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., which produces GreenBiz.com and its sister sites, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, GreenerDesign.com, and GreenerComputing.com. Joel is also the principal author of the annual State of Green Business report and the Greener by Design conference, both produced by Greener World Media.

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