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Speaking Sustainably

An open letter to manufacturers: The problem with 'eco mode'

Selling an optional green setting on a product isn't the same as selling a green product.

Do you ever have that Charlie Brown moment? The moment when you’ve done something again for the umpteenth time, hoping for a different result, but you get what you’ve always gotten?

That’s my current relationship with the "Eco Mode" on my one-year-old, fairly expensive dishwasher.

I rinse the dishes (wondering if I’m just making environmental matters worse), pop them in the dishwasher, press the Eco Mode button and hope for the best. And then I sort through the dishes when the cycle is done, pull out the ones that actually appear to be clean and leave about a quarter of them in the machine, to be washed a second time when it’s full (in Regular Wash mode).

I’ve got LED bulbs in my house and office that have failed after only a couple of years (when the promise is 20 years), my white towels are no longer white from only ever being washed in cold water (at least I think that’s the reason – it could be the environmentally friendly detergent I use), and my hybrid car sometimes hesitates when I need to accelerate fast to get the heck out of somebody’s way.

I’ve chosen to devote my life to creating a more energy responsible, sustainable America, so I’ll hang in through all these disappointments and frustrations. But do you think most Americans will?

Judging from our data and experience, um, no.

We know from our research that after people get to their third energy-efficient home purchase, they typically don’t see the impact they expected in their utility bill, and they stop buying energy-efficient products or making energy-efficient improvements to their homes.

We’ve heard Americans complain for years in focus groups that "green products just don’t work as well." And if you’re actually in the market for a specific green product and start reading consumer reviews, you’ll see numerous consumer complaints about the product quality — and commentary on how "Eco Modes" are crap and misleading in terms of actual environmental benefits.

So, manufacturers, please:

1. Just bake sustainability in.

Make your products inherently more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Don’t make it an optional button or brand extension.

As long as it’s an option, sustainability remains on the fringes vs. being "the way we do things around here." And people most often will choose what they know vs. trying the new option, which also keeps sustainability on the fringes.

Lastly, if the eco option doesn’t really do much to save energy or help the environment, we’re setting sustainability up as a "scam designed to charge people more money" (which we’ve actually heard people say in focus groups).

2. Then make sure the product performs well and does what it’s supposed to do.

If the greener laundry detergent doesn’t keep people’s towels clean, why would they keep using it? If the more expensive LED bulbs fail after two years, why would they buy them again?

Too often we leave sustainability up to consumers. "If we can just change consumer behavior," I hear all the time. OK, yes, there are consumer behaviors that must be changed. But if we want to make energy responsibility and sustainability mainstream, we need to make it the best, and often only, option.

Manufacturers, we need you to do your part.

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Shelton Group

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