Raising the Bar on Green Marketing

by Shel Horowitz

The old Green messages are beginning to look a bit pale. Accusations of greenwashing are rife, and often, those charges have more than a little substance-does anyone really believe BP is a Green company anymore?

So does that mean Green marketing is dead? What’s a conscious marketer to do?

First of all, I don’t for a moment believe that Green is dying, let alone dead. But just as parents stop diapering their babies once they’ve been toilet trained and expect them to wipe their own tushes from that point on, so we as Green marketers need to take greater responsibility for our messaging. Like those toddlers who are mastering not only toilet training but walking and talking and table manners and a whole bunch of other stuff all at once, we have to stand on our own feet, even if it feels a bit wobbly at first.

So here are a few marketing guideposts on your own wobble toward sustainable marketing:

  • Be clear and specific. Today’s informed consumer doesn’t just want to hear “we’ve gone Green.” They’ll respond better to something like “by introducing this new, efficient packing machine, we’ve reduced solid waste by 18 percent and cut carbon emissions by 368 tons a year.”
  • Make consumers understand what each of these accomplishments means to them: “That solid waste reduction means we don’t have to bring nearly as much to the landfill, which means lower costs passed on to you, longer landfill life, and fewer non-degradable materials clogging up the landfill. Lower carbon means 68 fewer asthma cases in our county every year, as well as reducing catastrophic global warming.”

(If you’re familiar with the concept of features vs. benefits, you’ll note that the first bullet stresses features-which are by themselves seldom enough to sell successfully-and the second bullet translates those features into direct benefits both to the consumer and to the world. Features provide the gear-heads (who already understand what they mean, and can supply the benefits themselves) something to look at; benefits speak to average consumers through their own emotional needs and wants, and are much more powerful-but you need both, in many cases.)

  • Raise the bar on your industry’s standards for going Green. Have you achieved zero waste in a facet of production? Have you switched to compostable plastics-that you’re actually composting? Have you figured out a way to cut energy or water use by some huge percentage? Are you sourcing a larger percentage of materials from sustainable-practices vendors? Say so! You’ll get the competitive advantage of doing this before others-and once your competitors start imitating, you can still get good marketing mileage out of having been first.
  • Stay away from messaging that won’t be believed. If you’re promoting nuclear power or large-scale biomass, for example, any attempt to portray your company as Green will come back to bite you. Best, of course, is not to promote those products at all, but if you have to promote them, get out of the Green space and find other ways to market (or should I say, defend) these environmentally toxic technologies. Both of these have been promoted as Green alternatives, and neither one passes the sniff test.
  • If the Green content of your practices is questionable or largely unknown, be prepared to document it in your messaging. Thoroughly. I went to a solar festival this summer where a couple of the exhibitors were talking about “biochar.” From their materials, it looked to me like just another variant on burning wood: points for renewability, certainly, but NOT for clean emissions or carbon impact reduction. By failing to convince me that they were truly Green, these companies left me highly skeptical of other claims they (or their competitors) might make.
  • Involve your supply chain. Just as “no man is an island,” neither is a corporation. You have vendors who sell to you, and customers who buy from you. You have ancillary services involved, such as transportation or security. And you have both carrot- and stick-flavored leverage you can exert to help these companies go Green. The carrots: not only will they get more of your business, but you will promote them in your Green marketing campaigns. The stick? If they fail your sustainability criteria, you’ll choose another vendor who is more earth-centered.

Shel Horowitz, shel at greenandprofitable.com, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He writes the Green And Profitable/Green and Practical columns and is the primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).

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