It’s not easy being green

Kermit was prescient.

If you want to be a green brand, it’s hard.  The first brands to claim greenness were distinctive outliers.  But they didn’t have many customers with aligned motivations.  Years hence, we are rapidly drawing toward a point where being green is an ante, minimum table stakes.  Consumers are increasingly conscious of environmental responsibility, or are at least discomfited that their product choices might have some adverse effect (like the derision of greener neighbors).  So, they look for some label of greenness:  “natural,” “fair trade,” “organic,” or “made without (some substance they never heard of before).”  Or they buy at Whole Foods.  But since the supply of green claims has kept pace with higher demand, it has become difficult to achieve green leadership or differentiation.

In the personal computer market, there is a constantly changing list, published by groups like Greenpeace, of which manufacturers are the greenest.  Each brand one-ups the other in removing chemicals, planting trees, reducing waste, etc.  But it’s impossible for customers to perceive a consensus winner.  In grocery and personal care products, there are no end of natural claims, but again, lack of clarity about what is really good for the world.

This is in part due to lack of standards — unbiased ratings that help the customer rank products by greenness.  In electronics, there is Energy Star, but not much understanding of its levels, or whether it goes beyond energy use to manufacturing and sourcing responsibility.  In personal care, Burt’s Bees recently took the initiative, with other industry members, to create a standard for products labeled “natural.”  If products meet certain criteria they are allowed to bear this seal.


Another difficulty of positioning relates to the cacophony of claims being made.  With the number and variety of reasons brands are giving to establish their greenness, it is very difficult for a brand to stand out. 

Interestingly, credibility does not seem to be an issue.  A recent article in Advertising Age reports that green claims tend to be believed, but that consumers worry about the performance and cost of such products.  Another reason it’s not easy being green.

So what to do?  Let’s learn from Burt’s Bees.  They have substantial momentum in personal care products, and a firmly green (responsible) brand reputation.  They built this reputation the old fashioned way:  they earned it.  I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Burt’s CEO, John Replogle, last week.  He explained the many ways that the company serves the greater good, through natural products, minimal packaging, waste reduction, employee care, and more.  It was obvious that to John and his company, green and responsible do not originate as marketing messages.  It’s not easy for Burt’s (to be green), but it is powerful because it’s real.

While it’s not easy truly BEING green, it will separate your brand from the morass of others trying to be on trend with shallow commitments.  At some point, the market will move past its current ambivalence, and become discerning on responsibility and environmental fronts.  Then the wheat will be sorted from the chaff.  A brand’s identity will eventually converge with the truth.   


3 Responses to “It’s not easy being green”

  1. 1 Greyson Davis April 27, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Love what you had to say here…in particular “green and responsible do not originate as marketing messages”

    So true, yet companies can’t seem to help themselves. If folks are in a boardroom and the topic of discussion is “how do we market/message being green”, everyone should get up, leave, and go work on something else, because they are missing the point.

    The first conversation needs to be, how do we become more green…and if they aren’t willing to make tough decisions and changes to accomplish that goal then don’t bother.

    Additionally, I think companies shouldn’t worry so much about the lack of consensus around “THE green standard”. Too often the goal is “let’s do just enough to reach a standard so we can then talk about it”, as opposed to a genuine and sincere effort to truly be green. If that effort is made a company will have plenty of ammunition and bullet points to market to consumers.

  2. 2 Tim Daloisio April 27, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    It’s something that we’ve struggled with at CNET for a while, but have recently decided to make a strategic differentiating point for our brand. Green, or environmental impact, is something that will be core to the fabric of our coverage moving forward. Leveraging our best of breed lab based testing model, we’ve just announced that we will be recognizing the most “green friendly” products across key categories as CNET Power Savers.

    Here’s a bit more: “At CNET, we take sustainability seriously. We have made it a goal to educate users on the value of buying products that are sustainably produced, energy efficient, and low waste. We launched the Green Electronics Guide on Earth Day 2009 to highlight this commitment and introduce energy efficiency ratings in four product categories (TVs, laptops, desktops, monitors), as well as a new “Power Saver” seal for the most-efficient products in a category. Companion efficiency guides explain how we test those products and why you should care. We’re also debuting a new weekly show on CNET TV called The Green Show. In the coming months you will find more examples of our commitment to sustainability, including more content on the materials used to manufacture consumer electronics and ways that consumers can safely dispose their old products. As always, we encourage you to send your feedback.”

  1. 1 Is “Sustainability” sustainable? « Offering Trackback on September 15, 2009 at 9:28 pm

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