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July 11, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Environmarketing: When the Green in Green is Money

Twenty years ago these labels would almost certainly have been absent. The concept of environmentally-aware consumption was viewed then much as we now see the halt of global warming—great in theory, but in no way economically viable. The average green consumer was lumped squarely in the Birkenstock and tie-dye hippie category. A dedication to green, beyond a token nod to preserving NZ’s pristine image, marked an individual out as alternative.

So what has changed?

The driving force behind the mainstreaming of demand for ethical products is that of awareness. While it may seem egotistical to say that we who are alive today face the worst set of environmental crises on record, the issues facing the planet now are many and pressing.

A recent New Scientist article (entitled ‘Earth’s Oceans on Course for Mass Extinction’) presents findings which predict the demise of all coral reefs and the extinction of multiple species of fish due to the runaway effects of “climate change, overexploitation, pollution, habitat loss and other stresses.”
CO2 emissions hit an all-time high in 2010, despite preventative measures such as the Kyoto Protocol. The refusal of the US to enter into emission-limiting agreements, coupled with increasing industrialisation in developing nations, reduces the chances of finding an equitable international solution.
If deforestation continues at the current rate, the world’s rainforests will be gone within a century.

Not only are these issues now pressing and well-documented, they are also, crucially, more highly publicised. Environmental concerns have been voiced by an increasing number of well-respected public figures. Credible and charismatic speakers such as Sir David Attenborough and American scientist Carl Sagan have increased popular knowledge, as have documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth series. This greater public understanding of both the beauty and the fragility of our environment has spurred interest in its preservation.

But what to do, when the challenges facing that environment seem so vast? No individual can entirely halt deforestation or climate change. It is this sheer scale which can lead so easily to personal apathy. Popular awareness of environmental issues can create a vague sense of guilt or frustration without providing solutions which can simply and immediately be implemented by the average consumer.

This demand for rapid and affordable micro-solutions is now being met in part by the business community. Established corporations once disparaged by the green movement as destructive polluters have now identified the public wish for more sustainably manufactured products. At the start-up level, green business is an attractive option for entrepreneurs due to the room for innovation
and growth.

Companies wishing to gain green credentials may do so in a number of ways. Popular focus points are recycling (or the recyclability of the product) and resource consumption minimisation, either in the production process or on the behalf of the consumer when the product is used. These come under the umbrella of sustainability.

Climate change is sometimes a focus, with a trend towards renewable energy and biofuels in an attempt to minimise CO₂ emissions. The buildings which house the businesses may be built with energy efficiency in mind.

The positive contributions of the company or product to the environment are ultimately in pursuit of profit. However, as going green is often more expensive than traditional production, businesses rely on the profits of their rebranding to outweigh the costs of the switch. Marketing which targets the wish for ethical consumption is then crucial.

Just as education about environmental crises has driven the demand for products seen as solutions, so education through advertisements drives demand within the green industry. As True Green @ Work, a recent guide to green business. put it “the size of the green market remains far smaller than what consumers’ stated environmental concerns indicate it should be…. It suggests many people are unsure about how to translate their personal values to their consumption choices, and perhaps also less than convinced about the difference it makes”.

Packaging and image are crucial. With the growth of firms specialising in green marketing, the ‘sustainable’ look has become glossier for wider appeal. Bright colours and clean lines create an unconscious shift away from the alternative movement and market and towards the mainstream audience. The Simple skincare range is a world away from tie-dye and henna.

Just as the look of the packaging has become sleeker, the packaging itself has become more environmentally friendly. Canvas bags are sold as the green alternative to plastic, which have become a symbol of unnecessary waste.

But the movement away from plastic bags—though presented as a major way for the consumer to help the environment—has in reality a negligible impact. Mike Berners-Lee pointed out in his How Bad are Bananas? that using five plastic bags per week per year causes the emission of only 2.5kg of carbon; the equivalent of one cheeseburger.

This highlights the major problem of the rebranding of green—the difficulty of distinguishing between ‘green’ products which genuinely are better than their traditional alternatives and which are simply marketed as such.

This misleading advertising is known as Greenwashing. Think of companies such as BP and Shell pouring millions of dollars into campaigns which mimic the look and the buzzwords of the green movement while doing catastrophic damage to the environment. Shell present themselves as biofuel innovators while continuing to rely heavily on fossil fuels.

The blatant hypocrisy of some campaigns is staggering. In a recent example, the UK newspaper the Guardian ran an article entitled ‘Chevron’s Solar Panels Won’t Clean Up its Filthy Oilfield’ in which it stated “Chevron plans to use solar energy to power pumps at one of the oldest and dirtiest oilfields on the planet.” A sudden ‘caring’ campaign from an unexpected source may follow on the heels of an oil spill or other burst of negative publicity for the company.
Greenwashing dilutes the market for and credibility of products which really do have a positive (or far less negative) effect on the environment. Certification is a problem. There are no strict guidelines for the disclosure of green credentials, and establishing and regulating these would be difficult. What do consumers care about? Comparative carbon footprint? Very difficult to calculate accurately. ‘Made from all natural ingredients’? Many synthetic compounds are neutral or beneficial. Biodegradable? Almost everything is, including plastic bags. It just takes about 10,000 years.

What certification is available is voluntary and may in some cases be overly strict. Fairtrade labelling insists that products be organic, but the expense of the certification process makes it impractical for many poorer farmers whose practices are, by general standards, environmentally ideal.

Just as the corporate world is marketing increasingly to the green consumer, environmental watchdog organisations such as Greenpeace are marketing increasingly to the green consumer. There has been a move away from simple donation seeking and towards providing something for that money. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) now allows you to ‘adopt’ a member of an endangered species, providing buyers with a toy and adoption certificate. The environmental groups are themselves rebranding the green movement in a more commercial spirit.

A sudden and dramatic change in the economic system to meet the demands of environmental campaigners and the challenges posed by industrialisation is impossible and in many ways undesirable. But as public awareness of these problems has grown, so too has the demand for products which respond. The interests of business and the organisations acting as watchdogs are being merged, and we, as consumers, are rebranding green. *

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