A Pale Green World

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In the last few days, I have read several reports about the state of green consumption, which seems to have dropped since the recession led consumers to look more closely at their wallets and pocketbooks. The New York Times reported a few days ago the “green products are losing their allure.

But America’s eco-consciousness, it turns out, is fickle. . . . “Every consumer says, ‘I want to help the environment, I’m looking for eco-friendly products,’ ” said David Donnan, a partner in the consumer products practice at the consulting firm A. T. Kearney. “But if it’s one or two pennies higher in price, they’re not going to buy it. There is a discrepancy between what people say and what they do.”

“Bottom line, if it’s green and it’s a good deal, I’ll buy it,” said Ms. Pooler, outside a Jewel-Osco store.

Ms. Pooler doesn’t understand that green products, if they are really greener that the alternatives, are the real bargain. The few cents saved on the other products may be far less than the costs they lay on the Earth through greater impacts. I have often written that consumers do not understand what they are buying in spite of all the minuscule information on the label. They do not understand or acknowledge the costs of damage to the environment or the cost of unfair labor practices. Putting green labels and scores doesn’t remedy this at all, and may make the customers even more unknowing. The story continues.

At Church & Dwight, its Arm & Hammer Essentials multisurface cleaner, glass cleaner and laundry detergent are no longer being produced for the United States market, less than three years after they were introduced. . . “Arm & Hammer Essentials cleaners may have been ahead of their time,” said the chief marketing officer, Bruce Fleming, in an e-mail. Its concentrated cleaners, for instance, were sold with an empty spray bottle, and consumers had to add their own water to make the cleaning sprays. . . “We haven’t given up on launching innovative, earth-friendly products, we’ve just taken a step back to think about how and when consumers will be ready,” he said.

Maybe it’s time to give up on the concept of consume sovereignty if this is how producers and retailers think. It’s far past, not ahead of, the time that consumer goods must reflect the real costs, not just the costs in the accounting P&L, but in the environmental P&L as well. These costs are just as real as the cost of the ingredients in the detergent on the shelf. They simply are unaccounted for in standard financial reporting.

The troubles with green products go beyond the recent economic woes says a report “Mainstream Green," a report published by Ogilvy and Mather based on polling data. The authors, Graceann Bennett & Freya Williams, see the problem as one of an error in marketing strategy.

Topline: We’ve been getting the message all wrong Our research shows that when it comes to motivating the American Mainstream, marketers, governments, and NGOs have been approaching messaging and marketing around sustainability all wrong. Indeed much of what we’ve been doing has actually been cementing the Green Gap by making green behavior too difficult and costly from a practical, financial, and social standpoint.

The “green gap” they mention is the difference between people who say, “‘green’ is important,” and those that act accordingly. Some 16 percent of the US adult population are what the authors call “super green.” They walk the talk; there is no green gap here. About 18 percent are at the other end of the spectrum, the “green rejectors.” They make no bones about their attitudes; they neither care for or act toward the environment. There’s no green gap here either.

It’s the great middle, about 66 percent, that is interesting. Half act on their intentions and half do not. When you put this all together, you get a green gap of 30 percent. Thirty out of one hundred adults claim that environment is important but fail to do anything about their feelings. I suspect the number is probably higher because people tend to overstate their actions toward a cause.

Being marketing consultants, their interpretations of the data are not surprisingly directed toward the need for better marketing as if peoples understanding of the world is created through marketing. There are 12 separate recommendations in the main report. I picked just one for this post.

Eliminate the Sustainability Tax: We’re taxing people’s virtuous behavior. The high price of many of the greener products on store shelves suggests that we are trying to limit or discourage more sustainable choices. We must dismantle the informal luxury tax placed on green products if we are to close the Green Gap for the mainstream American consumer. Eliminating the price barrier eliminates the notion that green products are not for normal citizens.

This shows me how far the world of marketing is from the real world. There is no “sustainability tax.” Perhaps, in this case, virtue comes with a price tag attached. If anything, we are eliminating the “unsustainability subsidy,” the costs to the natural system that are not included in the normal price. Green products, on the whole, are going to be more expensive because they internalize the costs that never showed up in the products already on the shelves. That has to be the marketing message. We have been led to believe that Walmart’s costs are the right ones, that gasoline should never cost more than about $3.00 a gallon, or that any difference in the price of “green” soap is not worth it unless you're one of the elites (the super greens).

If the green marketers and the companies they consult with are serious about “green,” they have to start paying attention to the Earth, not their polls. They need to find a way to tell the customers that you can pay now or later, but you or your children are going to pay for the costs of environmental and social damage. And if you delay, the future costs are going to be much higher. We cannot inflate our way around this hard fact as has been suggested as a way to deal with the budget deficit.

Marketing can, I know, be very powerful, but the “Mainstream Report” has it all wrong. The message should be to educate people to understand that any extra cost of green goods is justified and real. The way to make these products mainstream is just that, to send the message that it is the products that are not “green” that are the more costly and should be avoided.

More later as I study this report in more detail. A quick look tells me that there are at least 12 blog posts there--one for each of the recommendations. I labeled this post, pale green, the right color to use for describing the state of the world today. The swatch in the upper corner is as pale as I could get without losing any tinge of green.

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