Green Marketing Is Over? Discuss.

Two Steps Forward

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 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."

And, as I said, these marketing efforts have not engaged the masses. Indeed, market research has shown that consumers overwhelmingly believe that "going green" is expensive and inconvenient. Moreover, they don't trust most of the claims marketers are making. As such, green consumerism has been relegated to a niche market, largely for upscale consumers or a relatively small sliver of committed environmentalists.

In the end, I believe that green marketing can work, but it has to be done thoughtfully, transparently, and authentically. It has to give consumers other reasons for buying a product than the mere fact that it's greener. It has to show customers that the product is overall better -- for consumers and for the planet. It has to engender trust in the company or the brand behind the product -- that the company is truly committed, not just to "doing the right thing," but to creating effective solutions for customers that enhance their lives while contributing to a better world.

Problem is, I've seen very few examples of consumer-facing marketing that has done that. Who do you think is doing it right?

Martin: Before I answer that, we should take a step back and define "green marketing." One of the biggest issues we have is that people are looking at this as black or white (or green or, um, not green). It isn't that simple. We look at social change marketing (of which green marketing is a part) on a continuum. On one end are the companies that are doing it reactively because "they have to keep up with the latest trend." Those are the ones we feel your observations reflect because they disappoint and confuse the masses while having little to no true impact. (Incidentally, those are also the ones that we don't work with.) On the other end are companies who live it, know that smarter resource management is a competitive advantage. They leverage it to the fullest to not merely reduce expenses but also increase revenues. Their efforts are proactive and meaningful.

The reality is the majority of companies are scattered somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

I agree, the first, reactive type of green marketing was, in effect, "Put a green sheen on this, quick." That mentality is dead and never really worked. The second type, proactive engagement, is alive, thriving and, in my opinion, is the future of business.

As far as consumer-facing efforts that are being done right, I'd love to just say, "Well, look at my client list!" but that would be a cheap way out. First, we agree that if a company isn't trying to reduce the environmental impact of its own operations, it isn't yet ready to engage in green marketing. Of those that do, the ones that are doing it right are putting the issue (water, waste, energy, fair trade, social justice, etc.) at the forefront of their business operations, even if they aren't promoting their activities. They are asking consumers to act and get engaged in a solution, not merely to shop their way to saving the Earth. They are measuring success based on their impact, not just their sales.

So, who's doing it right? There are those companies that you'd expect like Stonyfield, Clif Bar, and Interface, but also others you wouldn't necessarily expect, like IBM, Procter & Gamble, General Mills and Clorox.

Makower: Well, we're agreeing on a lot here -- that effective green marketing is that which is blended into operations and not necessarily touted as discrete actions. But here's my question: If a company takes a green action but doesn't promote it, is that green marketing? I maintain that it isn't -- it's just good business.

As to your contention that the "first, reactive type of green marketing" is dead -- well, I wish you could see my in-box. I'm getting pitches every day by publicists at major P.R. firms as directly from companies themselves, touting the thinnest of green initiatives. Company A just published a sustainability report! Company B put solar panels on the roof of one of its distribution centers! Company C is giving a nickel per widget sold to Ducks Unlimited for the month of June! Company D is eliminating a toxic ingredient from its products! Company E just got an award from the mayor for recycling! Company F is now selling shampoo in packaging made from plants!

I could continue through the alphabet of examples. But you get the point.

This is part of which I'm railing against -- these tepid efforts that companies somehow believe will enhance their image or their products, and that consumers will somehow want to support them. That's part of what led me to suggest we "move on."

Maybe in the end, there should be some ground rules for green marketing -- not just some common-sense guidelines, as the Federal Trade Commission has put forth in the U.S., but some industry standards about what is effective and helpful, and what isn't.

I'd love to know what you and your brethren in the marketing world think.

Martin: We would love it if some real standards were in place to cut out misinformation and help consumers. The reality is that functional marketing watchdog programs in the U.S. (e.g. Children's Advertising Review Unit which has been around since 1974) are self-regulating and voluntary. Throw in the fact that institutionalized corporate social responsibility standards have not been adopted yet and that the likelihood of even a self-regulating board on green marketing is slim.

What might be more effective, more quickly is a media standard. Media outlets should be more aggressive in questioning companies about these small incremental efforts. Many mainstream outlets (as well as many "green" media outlets) continue to give them attention, lending credence to companies for minimal efforts. Maybe getting the mainstream media to ignore these announcements or even turn on the heat will force companies to consider a higher hurdle for their environmental achievements.

What should that hurdle be? Meaningful impact. It must be demonstrated that sustainability is fully integrated into the business, that significant strides are being made against the company's negative environmental impacts, and that they are partnering with consumers, NGOs and others to address some of the world's toughest challenges. Imagine if that was the standard to get press coverage. How much different would business, and the world, be?

Makower: I agree, Michael, that a sustainability standard for both companies and media coverage would be ideal, but it's not likely, even voluntarily. Reporters, as a rule, reflect the public -- that is, they're generally ill-informed about companies intentions and achievements, variously overly skeptical about measures of meaningful progress or enthusiastic about incremental improvements. (This gets into a larger discussion of what constitutes "news," which we should leave for another day.)

So, for now, we're stuck with the public relations and marketing machines of companies -- and their proxies, like your company -- to keep us informed and educated. That's hardly a satisfying state of affairs, but it's what we've got. I know that your fine firm and others are up to the task, but I'm afraid you're the exception and not the rule.

Which leads us back to the original question: If green marketing isn't "over," what should it be?