Green Marketing Is Over. Let’s Move On.

Sometimes, it’s hard to face reality, especially when a dream is so alluring. And the alluring dream of green marketing is this: that consumers would cast a vote in favor of a more just and sustainable world whenever they shop.

But the reality has been vastly different. For more than 20 years, consumers haven’t been willing to vote with their dollars. The reasons are many and complex, but the result is clearcut: With the exception of some energy-saving devices, no green product has captured more than a tiny slice of the marketplace, at least in the U.S.

Think about it: No environmentally preferable car, carpet, cleaner, cosmetic, clothing, coffee, credit card or cell phone has captured more than 2 percent of its respective market. In most cases, sales of green products represent well under 1 percent of any given category.

Even where green products do seem to be selling, it’s not primarily because of their environmental benefits. Organic foods? It’s about what we put into our bodies. Hybrid cars? They reduce costly trips to the pump. Energy Star TVs and appliances? They cut energy costs. It’s not really about the planet.

Green marketing should not be confused with public service campaigns aimed at getting people to change habits and adapt a more environmental consciousness. Changing habits -- toting reusable shopping bags, biking or taking public transit instead of driving, conserving water and electricity, taking care of parks and greenspace, and all the rest -- is a fundamental part of cultural shifts. Green marketing, in contrast, is aimed at getting people to buy stuff that is better for the environment.

Green marketing’s failure hasn’t been for lack of trying. Activists, community groups, government agencies, faith-based organizations, schools, scout troops, universities, and, of course, companies have been encouraging shoppers to make greener choices for years. And, as I’ve written about ad nauseum, pollsters and market researchers have fueled the fire, telling us all the while that large numbers of consumers want to make green choices when possible. A few do. But not many, and not often.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Companies' marketing efforts have been largely half-hearted, humorless and uninspired. Green products themselves have been variously underwhelming, overpriced, inconvenient, ineffective or unavailable. Too often, green marketers have attempted to prod consumers to act by relying on guilt or by encouraging people to “save the Earth,” neither of which has turned out to be particularly aspirational or appealing.

And consumers have made it crystal clear: They don't want to change, at least in the name of Mother Earth or the greater good. Of course, we change our buying and lifestyle choices all the time: how we communicate (email, mobile phones, texting, Twitter), how we shop (what's a “record store”?), what we eat and drink (“functional foods,” anyone?), and what we drive and wear and do. But those choices benefit us personally, today -- not some far-off forest or future.

The economic doldrums haven’t helped. The New York Times reported in April that sales are down of even the few green products that had been selling, such as green cleaners, as consumers looked for ways to cut costs. That’s been a key part of green marketing’s downfall -- the “sustainability tax” associated with premium-priced green goods, as Ogilvy’s Freya Williams, put it recently in “Bear in mind Walmart shoppers have an average of $65 a week to spend on groceries for their families,” she notes. “If you are trying to work within a $65 budget, there's just no way you make that kind of premium work, however much you might want to.” She argues that green products should cost less, not more.