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 GreenBiz.com. “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.
It is important to note that all of the above relates only to consumer-facing marketing. The business-to-business landscape is wholly different. A wide range of things companies buy -- building products, industrial cleaners, IT equipment, paper and forest products, appliances and some industrial feedstocks -- are being marketed effectively for their environmental attributes. Companies and other buyers (like government agencies, hospitals and universities) are more willing to change their buying habits, and their buying power can make for attractive economies of scale. Witness the continued market growth of green buildings, biobased packaging, alternative-fueled fleet vehicles and more.
But consumer-focused green marketing is just not working. It never really did. It was a noble experiment in social and market transformation. It has largely failed. And continuing to think it will somehow make a difference isn’t just folly, it’s counterproductive. It's time to declare defeat and move on.
Here are five reasons why green marketing should be put to rest.
1. It’s not working. For all the hue and cry by green marketers over the years, shoppers seem as conflicted and misinformed as ever, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly through a myriad of polls and market research studies. Suzanne Shelton, who runs the advertising agency The Shelton Group, recently explained to me some of the challenges. “People don’t trust companies even though they want them to act,” she said, “though they do trust brands.” At the same time, she noted, “We know that the number-one way people determine a product is green is that they read the package.”
So, they trust the brand, but not the company behind the brand, though they trust the marketing claims the company makes on its package. Is it any wonder that, when it comes to making green choices, consumers are dazed and confused?
2. It remains a niche activity. Most of the major product purveyors have opted out of green marketing, or have dabbled in it so timidly as to relegate it to a single brand or product line. Of the 10 largest advertisers in 2010 (Procter & Gamble, AT&T, General Motors, Verizon, News Corp., Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Time Warner, General Electric and Walt Disney), only two -- GM and GE -- have tried in earnest to market products as green. One of those, GE, is largely B-to-B.
3. It’s not moving the needle. After all these years, green marketing isn’t making any real difference. It’s not changing consumer habits. It’s not causing a significant shift in the kinds of goods and services companies are selling. And it’s definitely not making a dent in addressing climate change, water and food security, biodiversity, energy prices, or any of our other serious environmental and economic challenges.
Ironically, there’s a new generation of companies that stand to make a difference, even though they don’t typically market themselves are green: the growing corps of so-called collaborative consumption (or mesh) companies. They facilitate the sharing or reuse of products and services -- car-sharing or home-trading services, for example -- as well as the exchange of many goods, from food to fashion, and the barter of -- well, just about anything.
These firms embody what sustainability is all about: reducing needless consumption, getting maximum value from physical goods, connecting people, creating community, sharing. These firms typically don’t market themselves or their services as green or sustainable. They’re simply better.
They’re not alone. Many technologies are, relatively speaking, greener: iTunes, ebooks, email, PDFs, and others have radically dematerialized and decarbonized commerce. But they’re not marketed that way. They’re just better.
So, what’s marketed as green isn’t moving the needle, while what’s moving the needle isn’t marketed as green.
4. It’s deluding people into thinking they’re helping. Green marketing creates a false sense of engagement and action -- that we can simply shop our way to environmental health. And it often creates an excuse for consumers to not do more. We all know (or are related to) someone who, consciously or not, believes that buying organic foods, recycling newspapers or driving a hybrid car offsets the rest of their personal environmental impact. That is, doing these things somehow makes the world safe for their other purchases, lifestyle and travel choices. Of course, it doesn't.
We’re all guilty of this, and for good reason: There are only so many changes or sacrifices most people are willing to make for the greater good. And if others aren't doing these things, why should we?
5. It’s missing the bigger story. The bigger story is this: Most of what we buy has become greener in spite of our unwavering shopping habits. As I’ve written about since the late 1980s -- and as GreenBiz has covered daily since 2000 -- companies are making significant, sometimes dramatic, changes in how they produce what they sell. They're far from sustainable, but these companies are getting better and better. And they’re not marketing these things.
Case in point: Over the past few months, GreenBiz has written stories about significant commitments and achievements made by some of the biggest consumer companies and brands: Adidas, Anheuser-Busch, Avon, Bumble Bee, Heinz, HP, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Kraft, Levis, McDonald’s, Nike, Pepsi, Planter’s, Procter & Gamble, Puma, Smithfield, Sprint, Timberland and Verizon. That’s 20 companies across a range of sectors, and I haven’t yet broken a sweat. All since January. There are hundreds of these developments every year.
I can assure you that almost none of these commitments and achievements is going to show up in product marketing materials or ads. If anything, they’ll be mentioned deep in a corporate website or buried in an environmental report. They’re not being done to sell more stuff. They’re being done because they cut costs, eliminate waste and inefficiency, improve quality and engage employees. That is, for sound business reasons.
Are these companies green, or even good? Not likely. But they’re making a bigger positive impact than most consumers will ever know.
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.