Green Marketing Is Over? Discuss.

Is green marketing "over"? That's a case I made several weeks ago, and it's stirred up quite a conversation, online and off. Comments on both GreenBiz.com and other sites, not to mention hallway conversations at recent events, suggest that the state of green marketing is, at minimum, debatable.

My longtime friend and colleague, Michael Martin, whose marketing firm, Effect Partners, has been working at the intersection of companies and causes as long as anyone, responded to my piece recently with some observations that were both surprising and disturbing. That began a back-and-forth conversation by email, presented here in edited form.

Is green marketing alive and well? If not, what would it take? Read on and weigh in.

Michael Martin: Joel, your article certainly struck a chord. Although, I have to tell you, probably not the chord you intended.

As you know, Effect is one of the largest social change marketing organizations out there. So, we have been a lightning rod for chief marketing officers and chief sustainability officers who are confused by your message. Your article has been passed around pretty much all of our clients' offices and, as a result, we have gotten the following response from many of our clients: "Well, Joel Makower says green marketing is over" and the New York Times says green cleaning products aren't profitable, so why should we continue with our sustainability focus?"

First, congratulations on having so much influence. Second, would you please clarify the point you were trying to make? I believe you have managed to create the long-sought-after excuse by the number-crunchers to suck any sort of commitment to sustainability out of corporations.

Is that what you intended?

Joel Makower: It's unfortunate that people are reading so much more into my article than I intended. In no way did I intend to suggest that companies should abandon their environmental or sustainability efforts. Indeed, I attempted to celebrate the considerable commitments and achievements companies are making -- things, ironically, that they are not even marketing. Things they are doing because they cut costs, engender innovation, inspire employees, improve efficiencies, and reduce risks.

Michael, I won't take responsibility for companies that used my article or the New York Times piece as a fig leaf to reduce or eliminate their sustainability activities. I believe these are individuals or companies that already were seeking an excuse to do less, or do nothing at all. It's unfortunate that my article helped give them cover, though I'm guessing they would have found it elsewhere if I hadn't written my piece.

I am saddened and frustrated that anyone would read into my article that sustainability or environmental responsibility is somehow "over," that it is a senseless, needless activity inside companies. Quite the contrary. As you know, my entire business and career is based on the premise that there is considerable untapped value in companies embracing sustainability. GreenBiz Group's websites, events, research and networks are all about that.

But that's not what most green marketing, as I've watched it over the past 20 years, has promoted. It has tried to sell consumers products that, in the vast majority of cases, had incremental improvements that were deemed "green," improvements that are relatively trivial, in terms of their cumulative environmental impact. And, in the process, it led consumers down a dangerous path by suggesting that their purchases are somehow "saving the earth."