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If You're Going to Be Naked, You'd Better Be Buff: Radical Transparency in Green Marketing

<p>At the State of Green Business Forum last week in San Francisco, a panel of industry experts explored how radical transparency -- whether driven by companies themselves or their customers -- is reshaping the world of green marketing.</p>

At last week's State of Green Business Forum 2010, Joel Makower got the session "Green Marketing in the Age of Transparency" off to a great start with his trademark humor, joking that for businesses today radical transparency is like going through one of those new-fangled airport devices where they can see through your clothes. And paraphrasing a quote from Naked Corporation, he quipped, "If you are going to be naked, you better be buff."

On a serious note, this panel had some great insights on what the impact of transparency is having on the world of marketing green products. The panel included Wendy Cobdra, Earthsense, Dara O'Rouke,, Chris Nelson, UL Environment and Stephen Linaweaver, GreenOrder.

As Marc Gunther highlighted in his post last Friday, the session led to some useful disagreement -- are consumers hungry for details on the health, environmental and social impacts of the products they buy, as Dara O'Rouke from GoodGuide argues? Or are consumers so overwhelmed with work and family responsibilities that they simply don't have the bandwidth to think about the greenness of every product they buy, as Wendy Cobrda of Earthsense suggests?

GoodGuide: Helping consumers find safe, healthy and green products

GoodGuide's tool helps consumers find "safe, healthy and green products." It even has an iPhone application that allows you scan products while you shop and get instant access to a score that combine performance in three categories: health, environment and society (covering such issues as workplace diversity, philanthropy or working conditions).

I did a quick look through the web site and the level of detail provided is a bit overwhelming.

O'Rouke believes that more and more customers are demanding this level of information and is aiming to communicate effectively about a product's health, environmental and social impacts by creating a platform for transparency.

I do wonder if the average consumer is ready for this level of information.

Most consumers are thinking 'me first'

Wendy Cobrda from Earthsense stressed that, "Most consumers are thinking me first.... Unless they get an immediate benefit, they don't care." In its most recent Eco-Insights survey, Earthsense asked consumers to prioritize where the environment fits in, given everything else going on. "Guess what -- economy is on the top and environment is number 6."

She stressed that consumers want something simple. They don't want their ability to make personal choice taken away, but they want it easy to be green -- simple as "yea or nay."

She concluded by advising companies to "define the sandbox that they are playing in... If you make it very clear, this is where we are trying to be green, you can be seen as authentically green."

What is lacking?

Chris Nelson from UL Environment spoke about his work to help companies build credibility and differentiate themselves in the marketplace. UL Environment did a year of market research and what they saw lacking was trust, transparency, science-based standards, brand recognition and credibility.

To address these challenges, it is developing standards around sustainability, primarily in building materials space, and verifying company claims on such issues as recycled content, energy efficiency and compostability.

You can't do transparency halfway

Stephen Linaweaver from Green Order stressed that, "You can't do transparency halfway. It takes people and it takes strategy. This is not a quick fix."

He got a good chuckle from the audience with his slide: "Psychic Fair cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances."

His advice for companies included two key points:

Intent: Get clear on what your intent is. Do you want to brand your whole company green or just one product? Check out Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles as an example of how they are being transparent across the company. For companies with multiple brands, he recommended the best place to start is probably at the product level. He pointed to the example of what Clorox did -- where they created Green Works, giving the company a green "halo."

Target Audience: Before you get started, he advised getting clear on who your target audience is -- clarify who you are trying to reach and identify what they care about. And communicate to them using multiple channels.

The paradox: Go deep, go simple

The take home message from the Q&A was the paradox of reconciling the need to go deep and identify real areas for improvement throughout your supply chain, yet go simple with your communications.

The final piece of advice -- leapfrog over the CSR report.. "Almost nobody reads them," said O'Rouke. He recommends communicating directly to your stakeholders where they are -- Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels.

And do check out the State of Green Business 2010 report -- it's available free for download here.

Deborah Fleischer is president of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies engage employees, strengthen their relationships with stakeholders, develop profitable green initiatives and communicate their successes and challenges. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact.

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