Green or Not Green? That Is the Question

Neil Grimmer has a marketing problem. As the co-founder of Nest Collective in Emeryville, Calif., Grimmer manufactures what’s possibly the most environmentally sound baby food in America. Plum Organics products come in a micro-thin container that’s devoid of Bisphenol A (which is suspected of impeding brain development in infants) and features a recyclable cap. Competing baby food brands in glass jars use nine times as much fossil fuel to transport and take up to 14 times the amount of landfill space.

By contrast, Plum’s disposable pouch is eco-friendly, competitively priced and convenient to use. So, what’s the problem?

It’s plastic. And in the minds of most consumers, that’s not “green.” Sure, Plum could try to explain statistics about landfill space and weight-transport/carbon-usage ratings, but that’s a lot to cram onto a 4.2-ounce bag. “These things are hard to talk about,” Grimmer says.

“There’s nothing sexy about a landfill.”

Nor is there any easy way to explain what’s actually green versus what consumers think is green—an assessment usually based on a dumpster’s worth of misinformation and outright lies. In the shopper’s mind, for example, glass is eco-friendly. But it takes a lot more fuel to transport glass than plastic and only about 28 percent of glass gets recycled anyway, according to EPA estimates. Counterintuitive as it seems, in many cases, plastic is a lot more ecologically friendly. But when shoppers spend all of six seconds deciding on a brand to buy, there’s no time to give them a course in low-density polyethylene or BTU outputs. “It’s hard to get people to look at these things,” Grimmer says. “There’s a lot of information out there, and it’s difficult for anyone to decipher what’s real and what’s not.”

And that, say many observers, is among the biggest problems in green marketing. Visit your local supermarket and you’ll see hundreds of products purporting to be eco-friendly. But without a third-party monitor, a twisted dynamic emerges: Much of what consumers assume is green is actually not, and those brands that really are green are often left to make a complex and technical pitch that people don’t understand or just don’t hear. As eco-marketing consultant Jacqueline Ottman puts it, “The consumer is very confused about what’s truly green and what isn’t. Marketers are confused themselves. Some products can be green in one instance and not in another. So it’s all potentially confusing.”

INTO THE WOODS

Make that guaranteed confusing. The shopper in search of a truly green product these days is in for a hell of a time, and the problem goes well beyond greenwashing, the prevalent practice of slapping labels like “natural” and “earth-friendly” on petrochemicals that’ll strip the paint off a car. Consider some examples of supposedly good products that often aren’t—and supposedly bad ones that don’t deserve the rap. Paper bags are most always seen as “natural” and biodegradable, right? But paper manufacturing flattens millions of acres of forests and uses huge amounts of energy and chemicals.

Or consider compact fluorescent bulbs, which Americans screwed into 330 million light sockets last year alone. CFs are touted as green because they’re supposed to last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs—but many of them burn out early and, once they’re tossed into the trash, shatter and release mercury into the environment. Oh well.

Or take the warm-and-fuzzy notion of locally grown foods, which, thanks in part to author Michael Pollan, unfailingly conjures images of the cheerful farmer who lives just down the road. As Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder and chairman of Seventh Generation, points out, “Consumers have come to believe that local is always better, but increasing research shows that, in many cases, [it’s not better] because of the energy inefficiencies involved in transporting local food. There’s no question that there are a lot of things that consumers believe to be so and are not so.”

Meanwhile, woe to the brand making a verifiable green product that, for one reason or another, falls outside the neat confines of what the average American considers green. It’s these brands that have the toughest time getting their messages across. “There’s a dichotomy,” says Erik Drake, vp of marketing for Stonyfield Farms. “The easiest message is not always the right product.”

Drake is in a position to know. Even though Stonyfield is a leader in the organic foods category, Drake is left to explain to consumers why a green company like his is still selling yogurt in plastic cups. Even though Stonyfield containers are made from No. 5 polypropylene—a plastic that leaves a small carbon footprint owing to its low weight and high rates of recycling—justifying any plastic to an increasingly eco-conscious public “is a challenge for us,” Drake says.

In fact, Drake’s challenge runs deeper than a yogurt cup. He says that while most consumers consider manufacturing plants to be the biggest evils when it comes to generating greenhouse gases, the biggest producer of that bad stuff happens to be the single greenest, most eco-friendly thing you could possibly imagine: a cow. “We started offsetting the CO2 emissions from our plant 12 years ago. but it’s the cows and their methane that’s worse than CO2,” Drake says.

Cow farts. Good luck addressing that in marketing, too. Stonyfield is currently experimenting with new feeds richer in flax and Omega 3 fatty acids that can cut, uh, emissions by roughly 12 percent. As far as the marketing goes, “we expect to make it part of our messaging,” Drake says, but so far Stonyfield hasn’t quite found the perfect way to do that yet.

PICTURE FUZZY

Part of what makes that mission so difficult, of course, is the sheer number of green (or allegedly green) brands out there. A count conducted by research house TerraChoice between November of 2009 and January of 2010 revealed that, in big box stores alone, 2,219 products were busy making 4,996 ecological claims. But another factor is the science itself. Green is not an absolute condition; it’s a matter of degree. Most shoppers, however, have neither the time nor the inclination to do the math behind all the green claims out there. They basically just want to buy what they need and go home.

Hey, wait a sec. What about all of that talk about how smart our Internet-surfing consumers are nowadays? Well, smart they may be—but they’re also highly susceptible to misleading advertising terms that have done a great job of generalizing a message that cannot be generalized. “Consumers have very simplistic ideas about what is green,” Ottman observes.

“Anything to do with recycling, biodegradability, ‘natural’ and ‘chemical-free’—these are probably the four biggest things they believe.” As a result, she says, “It might be tough to convince them that nothing degrades in landfills (which consumers think are giant compost piles) or that something made from petroleum could actually be greener than something natural.”

Complicating the picture even further is a basic marketing reality that’s not fashionable to bring up when we’re talking about saving the earth: Most shoppers—whether they admit it or not—look for value and performance before they look for green.

John Fabel learned that lesson the hard way. Back in 1996, Fabel—an entrepreneur and environmental scientist—started selling a backpack he called Ecotrek. In terms of sustainability, Fabel had it all nailed down. Made from 85 percent recycled material, the packs featured fabric spun from old soda bottles, padding obtained from shredded tires and a frame forged from melted-down aluminum cans. Fabel went to great lengths to make sure consumers knew just how earth-friendly his backpacks were. “We wanted to make green a genuine and valued part of our brand,” he says. “Our print ads made it really explicit, and our hang tags had all the information.”

It was long about then that Fabel and his business partners discovered something scary. “We had it all backwards,” he says. “People bought the bag because it felt good on their backs. And, oh, by the way, it was green.” In other words, the nitty-gritty green marketing message was not what consumers really wanted to hear.

But why? Fabel believes that concepts like ozone depletion, groundwater contamination and landfill usage are simply too far removed from the consumer’s daily life to sway a purchase decision exclusively. “The green component is so intangible,” he says. “Landfills—people don’t see those. The notion of helping the environment is so many layers away. At best, green is a value-added.”

Recent studies in this area back him up. The Natural Marketing Institute recently conducted a national poll of American adults, asking them about where green figures into the purchases they make. A whopping 68% of consumers told the poll takers that while they “care about the environment,” their purchase decisions were driven mainly by price.

TAKE A MESSAGE

All of which begs a very big question: How is a brand that’s truly green supposed to get that point across to consumers? The immediate answer, of course, is the packaging. But can you really explain complex environmental concepts on, say, a yogurt lid? “There isn’t enough space,” Stonyfield’s Drake says. Nonetheless, Stonyfield tries pretty hard. Green messages, switched off monthly, do appear on the yogurt lids (for example: “We give 10% of our profits to efforts that help protect and restore the earth”). But the company relies on its Web site to get the bulk of the information across.

Frito-Lay struggles with the same issue. On March 31, the snack giant unveiled the first completely compostable bag for its Sun Chips brand. Even though at least a third of the surface area is taken up by that message—“World’s First 100% Compostable Chip Package”—vp of marketing Gannon Jones admits that one sentence is insufficient to explain the details of why the packaging is eco-friendly. The bag is made from PLA (polylactic acid), a plant-based material that will decompose after 14 weeks of atmospheric exposure. Good stuff, but not what you’d call a catchy tagline.

“Obviously, you can’t put a dissertation on the bag. Nobody would listen to it,” Jones says. “But if you go to our Web site, you’ll see a white paper on how our compostable bags work. There’s a good group of consumers out there who want that transparency, and they’ll hunt it out.”

Will they? Is it realistic to expect consumers to go online—or depend on related outreach via social-media channels—so they can have a ball with an environmental-impact white paper? “No, it’s not,” says Keirstin De West, principal of Vancouver-based brand consultancy Conscientious Innovation. By sending shoppers to the Web, she says, “you’re asking them for more time, and you’re not making it easy for them to become more conscientious consumers.” De West’s firm recently conducted a survey in which it asked shoppers where they go to learn about a brand’s sustainability practices. Only 30 percent responded that they visit a company’s Web site, and when it came to relying on social networking channels, that number dropped to 15 percent.

Discouraging figures like that may be part of why a growing number of brands are looking toward third-party certification to explain green credentials too drawn out for packaging or for, say, a TV ad. The idea’s appeal is obvious. Since true green is often a lot more complex than most consumers have the time or inclination to deal with, one solution is to let an independent certification outfit crunch all the data and then give the brand a stamp of approval—think of a UL seal or a kosher designation, but for green.

Jay Coen Gilbert is the co-founder of one outfit that furnishes such a seal. His not-for-profit firm—called B Corporation—evaluates a brand on 200 green criteria, ranging from environmental conservation matters on up to progressive human resources practices.

“Consumers have a mind-numbing series of rabbit holes they’re forced to go down to make sense of the ever-increasing complexity of environmental claims,” Gilbert says, explaining that there’s a need for “a credible third party to say how these claims stack up against one another.” Currently, some 300 corporations sport the “B” seal (they include Method household products and King Arthur Flour), which Gilbert says can go a long way toward saving the marketing department the headache of explaining complex conservation practices to consumers.

PREDICTING THE HARVEST

But seals of approval and carbon-footprint ratings like the ones currently used by Tesco in the U.K. are years away from becoming standards—assuming it’ll happen at all—so where does the real solution lie? Ask brands that question, and you’re bound to hear wispy verbiage about breaking out of silos and quite a bit of “walk the talk” stuff. But most marketers agree that explaining ecological-impact studies will always be too difficult to do quickly and easily in the store aisle, and there’s a limited number of consumers willing to spend time reading about them on the Web.

That means that the bigger goal may not be how to convince shoppers that Brand A is green, but rather getting shoppers to think of the maker of Brand A as an earth-friendly company, period, and then let that mental association do the work that taglines and green labels cannot.

This is the strategy that has helped to make Seventh Generation one of those most recognized green brands in the supermarket—not the messaging it puts on its rolls of paper towels, but the crunchy associations that shoppers now make with the company itself. “From a marketing standpoint, having a 20-year history of doing this is really critical because it starts to build a trust that this is a company that’s focused on [sustainability] rather than just making a product,” says CMO Dave Kimbell.

Andy Bateman, CEO of Interbrand New York, adds that, increasingly, it’ll be retailers that help to establish the overall credentials of green corporations, with consumers trusting them to stock only those brands that really make the grade. “The products on the Whole Foods shelf tend to be more environmentally responsible,” he observes. “So what we’re looking at is the stores and retailers to become involved in the value chain. Consumers will start to look at them as the easiest way to navigate [the green issue.]”

Walmart—which announced its intent to move toward greener practices back in 2005—acknowledges this role already. According to vp Laura Phillips, who spearheads green efforts in the toy department, the big box retailer does not view green as a marketing issue. Instead, the company uses its tremendous size to compel brands to adopt greener practices (such as pressing for the reduction of packaging) which will allow consumers to make greener choices simply by showing up at the store. “We’ve made green more mainstream,” Phillips says. “Sustainability is big and complex and filled with drama. What we’ve tried to do is make it simple.”

Meanwhile, Neil Grimmer sits in his office in Emeryville, looking for ways to convince moms that a plastic pouch isn’t so bad, after all. His company’s Web site features a nifty chart showing how the pouch stacks up favorably against a glass jar in terms of fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Will consumers get the message? Grimmer hopes so, but he knows one thing: “If you want to implement significant change,” he says, “it needs to be easy to understand.”