Why Doesn't Green = Better?

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 wireless reader 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 environment?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Suzanne Shelton, the founder, president and CEO of Shelton Group, responds to Joel Makower's post here.

Green Sprig -- Image CC licensed by Flickr user lydurs.