Q&A: Penney Eyes ‘Light Green’ Consumers

Since March, environmental lifestyle expert and author Danny Seo has been showing J.C. Penney shoppers that it’s easy being green by identifying store products such as organic cotton towels and bamboo bowls, and giving the products a Simply Green distinction (a program created by J.C. Penney). Brandweek’s Becky Ebenkamp recently chatted with Seo about Penney’s green program, Seo’s eco-friendly Simmons mattress line and plans to extend his personal brand to other categories.

You bill yourself as an “environmental lifestyle expert.” What does that mean?

Danny Seo: It’s a little bit of a vague title, but basically I help people who are sort of dreaming about going green become doers. The way that I do that is I provide a lot of how-to instructive content in my books, my TV shows and magazine column and Web site that basically gives people the 101 they’re looking for. Then through product licensing and product development that’s where we’re delivering a lot of the tools.

BW: How did you get involved with J.C. Penney?
DS: I had the idea about creating this brand a couple of years ago and went to book publishers before green became this cultural tipping point and no one thought it would ever be mainstream. Then all of a sudden when gas prices started skyrocketing and magazines were doing green issues, in one single week we probably got a call from half a dozen retailers. I thought it was a conspiracy. It was almost like everyone felt they’d discovered what I was doing when I’d been pitching for years. It was everyone from mass-market discount to super-luxury retailers. What I liked about J.C. Penney was it was an opportunity to really help create product where price would be affordable for most of America. We could actually break this whole misconception that green has to be expensive. And they actually listened to me. They weren’t just interested in having a spokesperson, they really wanted a true partner in terms of product development to internal employee training and dot-com and everything you can imagine.

BW: What does the Simply Green program entail?
DS: We tried to make our campaign simple and straightforward. When you talk about the green space, it can get very confusing and overwhelming. Basically, Simply Green is a product designation: We locate products that we sell under our private label brands that are recyclable, renewable or organic. And we might be adding another bucket, which is energy savings. Instead of customers having to go through a whole re-education process all they have to do is look for our logo and they know that this towel or this bed set or this vase has some kind of a green tenet to it.

BW: Was there any fear that by designating certain products as green you were pointing out that other J.C. Penney products were less so?
DS: The work that I do is I talk to a ‘light green’ customer. There’s a philosophy that you can either be among the 5 percent who live their lives green 95 percent of the time or you can be the 95 percent who live their lives green 5 percent of the time. And that’s where the majority of our customer is, in that 95 percent. When you’re developing this type of campaign, you can never let the fear of being called out on it stop you from doing it. The reality is, green isn’t a trend that’s in one moment and out the next. It was a cultural shift, when the mass middle started gravitating toward green. When Toyota went from the most unpopular to the number one car company in America with hybrid technology, we realized it was important for J.C. Penney to focus on the green effort, but to do it in a very authentic way. Our little motto is that “every day matters” and every day we go a little bit greener too. It’s not just like flicking a switch, that’s impossible.

BW: What else do you have on the horizon?
DS: The first product I’ve designed and licensed with Creative Artists Agency was a mattress line, Simmons Natural Care by Danny Seo. We created a special model for J.C. Penney called The New Hope model. It’s selling phenomenally well and its actually one of their highest price-point mattresses, but it’s a fabulous green product. I think the bedroom is one area where people are willing to make more of an investment. Other models with Simmons are rolling out at better sleep centers and retailers around the country under different model names. Everything from a Home Shopping Network introductory model to a $4,000 elite model.

We’re about to roll out a bath and beauty line called Wholearth by Danny Seo. It going to be one the first green personal care lines that features 100% USDA-certified organic fragrance. The packaging, including the plastic bottles, is created from 100% post consumer recycled [materials]. So it’s bottles from bottles. And the end result is that the packaging. Green doesn’t have to be crunchy; it doesn’t have to be exclusive of great design.

BW: What makes a mattress green?

DS: Obviously it’s the materials, from the top layer to the bottom, we used biodegradable and environmentally friendly fabric for the cover called Tencel. But it’s really the core that’s the hero for the mattress. We use natural latex tapped from the rubber tree, so it’s a renewable resource, it’s not petro-based. Latex is inherently hypoallergenic, so it’s dust, mold and mildew resistant. For the base foam, we use foam that’s made of soy beans, another renewable resource. Even the metal and wood framing and materials in the box spring and foundation support are from sustainably accredited wood forests and recycled steel. A lot of green mattresses you have to order from a catalog, and I think it’s important to get to go to a store and test-drive it. This is the first green mattress you can actually go to sleep centers around the country and lie down on before you buy it.

BW: What consumer categories do you believe are poised for growth in the green sector?
DS: The pet industry. First because Americans see their pets as children but also because there have been pet food scares the past few years. There are a lot of smaller brands right now, but I think Americans are waiting for a mass, large brand like the way Method did for the green cleaning space. Immediate, accessible, affordable and aesthetically pleasing. And I think babies are a big area. Even if go on the record that saying you don’t care about the environment, when you have a baby, you become obsessive compulsive. You want the purest and the best for your child. I think we can get beyond the very, very expensive stores that cater to this. The last area I think is the home category in terms of energy efficiency: products that are going to make it more accessible to have solar energy in your home, tankless water heaters, anything to save money on your utility bills. Ikea announced that they’re going to see solar panels.