Is green a lost cause? Not if we make it about 'us'

Is green a lost cause? Not if we make it about 'us'

Last week I attended one of my favorite sustainability conferences of the year: Fortune Brainstorm Green. I particularly enjoy hanging with people that are true believers such as Joel Makower, Rick Ridgeway, Bill McDonough and Rob Bernard, and listening to the interviewing style of the Fortune writers covering the event.

I drove back to San Diego after advertising guru Lee Clow closed the conference with his approach to getting the consumer involved for Conservation International’s upcoming campaign to humanize the planet. I felt the need to reflect on why, despite my having had a great time, I felt unsettled about the actual work going on in sustainability. I had a similar feeling about the organic industry back in 2007, when I walked off stage after giving a speech at a conference and didn't attend another one — until the recent re-launch of Wild Oats.

So, why was I now harboring similar doubts? It finally hit me that this was the same sense of frustration I felt in the recycling business and at every board meeting of the recycling enterprise in which I was involved. My conclusion: "Green is gone." Or perhaps I should say, "Sustainability has subsided." That feeling of a lost cause, I think, is what has been bothering me about the green movement in general.

Thinking back on the conference, it occurred to me that there is one major reason for this slow decline in the momentum of all such efforts. As in the telecommunications industry, significant infrastructure has been put in place to accommodate anticipated growth. Much of this is designed to recycle plastic and other materials, even electronic waste, and to collect and clean wastewater.

But we have never managed to connect "the last mile of sustainability." Consumers are still not making their purchasing decisions based on the sustainable practices of corporations. The foundation already has been laid, and as the CEO of any major company knows, there’s no sense in spending money on the next steps when customers aren’t showing any indication that they enthusiastically back the measures already taken. Thus, sustainability is only "sustainable" when it becomes a major component of consumer demand. 

My only hope is that just as in the organic industry, which has taken almost three decades to overcome the higher costs associated with growing organic and finally start driving demand, the psychological barriers that are standing between us and that last mile of sustainability somehow will dissolve when the consumer gets involved.

High-fiving — and high prices

What slowed the progress of organic marketing is that initially, everyone was high-fiving and didn't get think that we needed an industry-wide effort to lower prices to make organic products more accessible. Such “elitism,” as it was often called, kept organic food purchases at about 3 percent of total grocery sales — not a major accomplishment.

But over the next few years, more people started worrying about their health and connected such concerns with what they were eating. Social media began to pick up on the issue of organic food being about spending your “whole paycheck," and demands became louder for more consumer-friendly pricing. Retail chains started working to lower costs, and ultimately Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, decided to re-launch the trusted Wild Oats brand, using its more efficient distribution system to make organic affordable (meaning 25 percent lower in cost than comparable products) and 4,000 stores to make it accessible. This was a huge win-win — one that finally made organic about "us,” rather than a relatively small number of farmers selling to an economic elite.

The green movement has to do something similar. It has to recast itself as being about our collective and individual health and well-being, not just pie-in-the-sky “environmentalism” that is often perceived as another elitist cause.

When people realize that what we’re talking about is being able to drink clean water, breathe clean air and eat food not tainted by toxins, I believe they will be far more receptive. For example, corporations as diverse as AT&T, Walmart and Nestlé are in various stages of recycling and re-refining their used motor oil and transforming their truck fleets to accommodate it. Currently, only a third of the approximately 1.4 billion gallons motor oil used annually ever gets recovered, re-refined and reused. By taking steps to capture and reuse it, these companies play a role in saving our drinking water quality because every gallon of discarded oil pollutes 2 million gallons of water. They also help purify the air and, even more important, reduce the rate of climate change because every million gallons of oil recovered and re-refined eliminates 6.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Organics’ tipping point

That’s just one small example of thousands of key sustainability initiatives that, while not easy to implement, are collectively what we need to do to keep the planet livable. But I’m not sure if anyone at this stage without knowledge of these efforts would give AT&T, Walmart or Nestlé credit, or make a business decision based on this and other programs they are initiating. Until they do, these programs will remain wobbly and part of the budget or cost equation instead of the consumer and revenue conversation. 

When a Walmart customer survey said the majority of customers would buy organic products if they were more affordable, that was a tipping point that paved the way for the agreement with Wild Oats. It’s also interesting to note that after the Walmart announcement many of the same industry people that fought lower prices in 2007 were applauding the move and wanted to be part of it — and will get on board.

That’s why, despite the doubts I expressed earlier, I feel that if we can frame sustainability as a health and wellness initiative versus a green one, we will get a lot more traction. To this end, I plan to do two things. One is to create a program that teaches children from the ages of 2 to 6 about the rewards they can get by doing nice things for Mother Earth. The second is to change the focus of my own endeavors to promote the direct connection between the health and wellness of people and that of the planet — and drop the use of impersonal terms such as green and sustainability.

In other words, make it all about "us."

Top image by words+pictures via Shutterstock.