Green Marketing Is Over. Let’s Move On.

So, green marketing isn't changing consumers' minds, is ignored by the biggest marketers, isn't changing things, misleads consumers and doesn’t give companies credit where it’s due. Are there any good reasons to keep doing it?

I’m not suggesting for a minute that consumers opt out of trying to nudge companies, markets and economies toward more sustainable products and practices. But relying on green marketing isn’t the way to make change. Most of it is irrelevant and unhelpful.

What’s helpful? Pushing companies to be transparent and accountable for their environmental (and social) impacts. Transparency has become the new lingua franca in sustainability -- a demand for companies to account for and report their impacts, commitments, goals and progress. It’s at the company or brand level that this makes sense: Why offer a few good, eco-labeled products if the organization behind them is headed in the wrong direction? Transparency is a fundamental building block of a green economy. It can build trust in companies, and ward off claims of greenwashing.

Being transparent is no longer a question for consumer-facing companies. The only question is whether they do it themselves or have it done for them.

There are several terrific examples of the latter: Greenpeace’s ranking of supermarkets on sustainable seafood; Climate Counts’ ranking of companies on their climate goals and performance (disclosure: I’m on Climate Counts’ board); the Electronics Takeback Coalition’s ranking of computer companies’ e-waste efforts; the Union of Concerned Scientists’ ranking of automakers; and Greenpeace's (again) ranking of technology companies. Each of these compares companies and brands using rigorous and consistent criteria, helping to illuminate who’s really walking the talk. They don't just look at product attributes. they look at the whole enterprise. This isn’t market-speak; it’s accountability.

But for transparency to be effective means consumers will have to put aside their innate skepticism -- or, if they prefer, hold their noses -- and support leadership companies, even if the companies in question are far from perfect.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m skeptical consumers will do their part. Too often, the public has looked disapprovingly at mainstream brands that have staked out leadership positions in sustainability -- I’m thinking of Nike, McDonalds, Walmart and Starbucks, among many others -- and written them off as “not good enough” or, worse yet, greenwashers. (Meanwhile, their less-green competitors get little or no scrutiny.) None of which has stopped these leaders from continuing, even accelerating their efforts. As I said, they’re taking these actions because it’s good business, not necessarily to move merchandise.

Consumers typically have been skeptical -- they’d rather see companies “do the right thing” than to make sober business decisions that achieve societal goals. Making money as a green-minded company (or at least as a big green-minded company) is seen as unseemly, disingenuous, even dishonest. So, consumers write off major brands that strive to align sustainability and profitability. “It's just not believable,” they say.

Which gets us back to the problem at hand. Let’s stop pretending that marketing green goods to consumers is somehow going to create a sustainable economy. It hasn’t yet, and I’m not seeing any indications that things are going to change.

There’s plenty of hard work to do on the journey from here to sustainability. Dilly-dallying with green-marketing come-ons is a distraction.