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Speaking Sustainably

Green Marketing and the Death of Curmudgeonly Contrariness

On Monday, my friend and colleague, Joel Makower, editor of, posted an article entitled, "Green Marketing Is Over. Let's Move On." He actually quoted me in the article to make his point ... and I believe he's off the mark. Hence a course correction:

Dear Joel:

Sigh. You're missing the point, my friend. Even though you say you're defining "green marketing" as "marketing aimed at getting people to buy stuff that's better for the environment," that's not really what you're lamenting. What you seem to be upset about, what you seem to be declaring dead, is the marketing of stuff that's good for the environment with an environmental message attached to it. Marketing products, in essence, with an "it'll save the planet!" message.

That is dead. In fact, it was mostly never alive. Very few Americans have ever bought stuff because they want to save the planet. As I've hammered home in this blog countless times, people buy green products for a host of other reasons -- to feel more comfortable, to gain peace of mind, to limit the chemicals their families are exposed to, to feel independent, to feel smart, and/or to have something beautiful they can look at all day long. And in Shelton Group's view, that's awesome!

It doesn't matter to us at all that people don't buy green products to save the planet, as long as they buy them. Our approach, in fact, is to figure out exactly what motivates a consumer in a particular category and leverage that to get them to buy.

It's no different from Walmart/Sam's Club eliminating all the laundry detergent from their shelves that's not in a concentrated formula. They eliminated the more wasteful choice so everyone who shops there now has to buy the friendlier, more concentrated formula. Thus, way more Americans now buy concentrated laundry detergent eliminating about a bazillion tons of extra packaging in landfills.

Again, the result is what all of us in the green space want ... why on earth does the how-we-get-there part matter?

So, Joel, no more bemoaning that "Even where green products do seem to be selling, it's not primarily because of their environmental benefits." It's OK. In fact, it's great. It's easier to get people to buy a product because they see an immediate impact on their daily lives. Americans like to do things that are easy and convenient.

Now for your concern that "green products aren't capturing more than 2 percent of their respective markets." Using the cleaning products category as an example (which, according to our Eco Pulse study, is the category in which consumers are most actively searching for greener products and have been for three years), in 2008 Mintel put share of eco-friendly cleaners at 3 percent of the cleaning products category. And they forecast it would be 30 percent by 2013. The recession will likely dial that number back ... but I think we'll still see significant market share growth, just based on the sheer number of options now available and the sales figures we're seeing.

For example, Method's sales grew from $85 million in 2006 to $200 million in 2009. That's outstanding! And it's evidence that people are buying green.

So, Joel, give it a little more time and embrace the ends and not the means. Or, forget that, embrace the means as well -- that we can and will market and sell the hell out of green products ... and we'll do it largely with tried and true advertising promises of empowerment, better health, a cooler image, a more beautiful home, and being a better Mom. And that's just fine.

Your equally passionate but perhaps more pragmatic friend, Suzanne

Photo CC-licensed by schizoform.

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