Q&A: G2’s Dodd on Why Green Will Survive the Recession

Why is it that the same consumers who recycle religiously often forget to bring their bags with them on shopping trips? And why do so few consumers consider the carbon footprints of the products they are buying? Jonathan Dodd, evp/director of strategy at G2, a WPP-owned global marketing services agency, thinks that retailers could do a better job promoting green shopping practices. In particular, Dodd cites U.K.-based Tesco as a role model. Tesco, which now has a Green Clubcard Program that rewards consumers for buying sustainable products, is perhaps the most cutting-edge retailer in the world on the issue. “Retailers and brand marketers can build on Tesco’s example by bringing a green perspective to the components of everyday shopping trip planning; menus and meal prep, home care and beauty care and others. By working collaboratively with marketers, retailers can integrate green messages into out-of-store communications enabling the shopper to think ‘green’ as well as ‘savings’ when drawing up the shopping list,” Dodd wrote in a recent opinion piece on the subject. Dodd expanded on that theme in an e-mail interview with Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman.

Brandweek: You note that shoppers don’t see a correlation between how they shop and helping the environment. Why does this gap exist?
Jonathan Dodd: There are a number of factors. Attitudes to green shopping are a reflection of awareness of and attitudes to sustainability in general. The number of people that are aware of and concerned about green issues is growing, but not yet universal. Unsurprisingly, green behaviors are following and building, albeit from a small base. Even amongst the growing number of green-aware consumers, when it comes to the act of shopping, new green attitudes are not yet front of mind, certainly not enough to override habitual behaviors and other factors such as price, performance and convenience. Even when sustainability is a consideration, green concerns, amongst the majority of shoppers, are not enough to justify compromising on these other features. Whilst overall lack of green awareness is still a key factor, there is also a lot of confusion. 

Sustainability is a big topic with many aspects that make it difficult for shoppers to understand easily and quickly. Confusing claims, numerous green logos and concerns over greenwashing add to the confusion. Shoppers also find it easier to relate to sustainability issues that are closer to their own actions, such as re-usable bags and recycling. Initiatives that are more detached, such as supply chain efficiencies or manufacturing processes, appear harder to bring into the purchase decision.
BW: Does any U.S. retailer that you know of offer something similar to Tesco’s Green Clubcard points program? Do you expect them to?
JD: I haven’t seen anything like the Tesco example on a permanent basis although similar initiatives may have been taken on a temporary basis. Such an offer is a way of reinforcing a corporate stance and an easy way to motivate and reward consumers to pursue greener behaviors. Similar initiatives for driving an ongoing behavior change include airlines and now gas stations like BP offering carbon-offsetting opportunities.
BW: Do you think U.S. shoppers might react negatively to the kind of green messaging Tesco offers? Might they perceive it as nagging and enforced political correctness?
JD: I haven’t seen any evidence of this and it may be because of the growing recognition amongst most shoppers that they should behave in a more sustainable manner, that such prompting is seen positively. Wal-Mart’s typical consumer is less green-aware than many other retailers and yet this hasn’t stopped them driving an agenda of change, nor has there been a shopper backlash [as long as they continue to deliver on their core promise of lower prices].
BW: Do you think that manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Clorox would like the idea of having their green products showcased together the way you suggest? What kind of feedback have you heard on that?
JD: Certain retailers are already doing something similar and as long as the focus is on meeting shoppers’ needs I don’t see any problem. Wal-Mart, in their Neighborhood Market stores have dedicated certain sections to eco-friendly personal care items under the banner of ‘Healthy for you. Healthy for the Environment’.
BW: You note a Duke study that says CMOs are putting green concerns on the back-burner for now and that consumers may regard green as an expensive luxury. If there’s no way to get around the fact that green products will be more expensive, is there any hope that economically pressured consumers in the U.S. will still buy them?
JD: It will certainly be interesting to see how manufacturers and retailers address sustainability over the coming months. Many have made big and public commitments to sustainability and yet we know that in tough economic times, consumers and shoppers become more price-sensitive. It is possible to see how sustainability could be used to deliver value to consumers as a means of taking attention away from price alone. By understanding consumers’ needs in a recessionary mindset it is possible to innovate and find new ways of delivering value and sustainability has a part to play.

In fact, a recent Edelman Goodpurpose study indicated that consumers are more likely to remain loyal to a brand if it supports a cause that is important to them.  Protecting the environment was revealed to be the cause that matters most. The majority of respondents also felt that cutting costs in a recession should not stop a company giving to good causes.
It may be that sustainability initiatives temporarily become more focused on particular shopper segments of channels (like Club, which, according to Nielsen and NMI, over indexes with more sustainability aware shoppers). Kroger, for example, is promoting some of its private label brands not only as competitively priced, but also as using recyclable paper in their packaging to add value to the overall proposition. While Chevy’s tire pressure indicators are undoubtedly a convenience feature, they are also being marketed as a sustainability measure.

BW: If the economy gets worse, do you see green and organic marketing techniques fading further?
JD: The current economic cycle will eventually bottom out.  The challenges facing the planet will not recede as quickly or as easily. Sustainability is a long-term commitment. It’s one thing to focus on other priorities and another thing altogether to back peddle on commitments made. Times of change also offer opportunities to change the game. If Wal-Mart, a retailer that is doing relatively well in these challenging times, can maintain its commitment to sustainability and price, it could emerge in a far stronger position that by focusing on price alone.