Time To Move Beyond Green Marketing

Mediapost Mediapost's green blog, Marketing:Green  recently featured a study by the company Verdantix that was discussed by one of their strategists Jim Nail. The report finds that agencies (PR, advertising, marketing and branding) are trying to transition from green marketing to something called "sustainable communications." This new discipline goes beyond simply marketing the product to the consumer and touting a green feature, to taking into account communicating other facets of making and selling a product such as its manufacturing conditions and life-cycle. "Sustainable communications" is intended to ammend the greenwashing issue that many consumers have become wary of in recent years. The holistic approach is being recognized and practiced by some agencies, but the concept of sustainability is still a relatively new concept in practice and communication, as this study finds.

Posted Sept. 7, 2010

By Jim Nail, MediaPost Marketing: Green

A new report from my company, Verdantix, identifies two agencies, Cone and OgilvyEarth, as leaders in a new discipline we call "sustainability communications."

Why sustainability communications instead of green marketing? This may be heresy in a newsletter named Marketing:Green, but we believe that green marketing is inadequate. Its focus of promoting a feature like recycled content ignores other environmental impacts embodied in the manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of products. This superficiality has exposed many brands to charges of "greenwashing."

"Sustainability" describes a more holistic, systemic approach that many companies are undertaking to decrease impact across the "cradle-to-grave" product lifecycle. One of the most visible examples is Walmart's Supplier Sustainability Assessment: 15 questions in the areas of energy, materials, natural resources and social impacts that the retailer uses in deciding whether to do business with the supplier.

But communicating this holistic approach doesn't fit neatly in marketing's classic features and benefits mindset. Nor does sustainability's multi-faceted nature fit with marketing's desire to find a single compelling benefit.

That's why we believe the time has come for "sustainability communications." Instead of focusing on product features, it roots the communications strategy in the firm's overall sustainability goals, strategy, and progress. Instead of spinning past accomplishments into a self-congratulatory CSR report, it provides a transparent view of data about the firm's environmental impacts, acknowledging where improvement is still needed. And instead of its goal being persuasion, it aims to engage consumers, employees, investors and business partners in contributing to the firm's sustainability achievements.

Among the 18 PR firms, advertising agencies, brand identity consultants, and sustainability communications boutiques that we evaluated against the concept of sustainability communications, there is some good news. All of the firms demonstrated a planning process that weeded out the greenwash claims that have given green marketing a bad reputation.

Now the not-so-good news: 11 of the firms are stuck in a traditional "tell a good story" mindset. Their advertising and public relations messages are generally accurate, documented with data, and demonstrate real progress. But sustainability communications leaders take a more forward-looking stance with a vision of true sustainability and humility about how much further they must go to fulfill their vision.

Now the really bad news: with the exception of Cone, none of the agencies is doing an adequate job of walking the walk. All agencies have a range of energy- and waste-reduction initiatives but these activities aren't tied to an overall goal. They track their environmental impact to comply with their parent company's requirements but don't strive to innovate. This is inadequate in an area where being an environmental leader has long meant going beyond compliance.

But here's a bright spot: the two leaders, Cone and OgilvyEarth, are developing approaches that embed sustainability as a core brand value. They recognize that as sustainability becomes embedded in a company's strategy and operational processes, it can change the nature of the brand and the relationship the consumer has with the brand. These two firms build brand platforms that make the consumer and other stakeholders the company's partners in solving big environmental problems.

To see this approach, I encourage you to check out Cone's "Shared Responsibility" approach and client Timberland's Earthkeepers' program. Ogilvy Earth's "From Greenwash to Great" whitepaper is also a useful resource.

Verdantix is hosting a free webinar on Sept. 9 at noon ET to present the findings of the report in more detail.

It's still early days in the evolution of sustainability communications. The strategies and tactics will continue to evolve and likely new leaders will emerge. One thing is certain: those who stick to tried-and-true green marketing approaches will fall further and further behind.


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