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Green or Not Green? That Is the Question

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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.”

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