by: Joel Makower
It's been more than 16 years since my book, The Green Consumer, was first published in the U.S. (You can now buy it for a penny on Amazon.)
That was during the media frenzy of Earth Day 1990, when the world (or at least some of it) reawakened to the environmental challenges we face. We were told there were "50 simple things" we could do to save the earth, and we felt empowered.
At the time, it seemed like a floodgate of greener products was about to open. Large consumer product companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever were dipping their corporate toes into the green waters, with the expectation they would eventually dive in. Big retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart were doing in-store promos featuring environmentally improved products. We could smell the change coming.
It didn't come, of course. Many of those early products were outright failures: biodegradable trash bags that degraded a little too soon, clunky fluorescent bulbs that emitted horrible hues; recycled paper products with the softness of sandpaper; greener cleaners that couldn't do their job. Much it was expensive and hard to find, to boot.
By about 1993, after flogging my green consumer mantra ("Every time you open your wallet, you cast a vote -- for or against the environment") around much of North America, I peered over my shoulder and realized that I was more or less standing there alone. The great wave of "green consumerism" never materialized.
Things have changed somewhat. A handful of products have gotten better and more cost-competitive. Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural food mega-marts have made some of them more accessible to the masses. A few of the more successful firms have been swallowed by bigger fish, in most cases benefiting from their new owners' marketing and distribution clout. The food, beverage, and personal care markets made the deepest inroads, rolling out organic, nontoxic, free-range, Fair Trade, and other eco-improved products to everyday shoppers. (However, there is a health connection there: these are all things we put in, or on, our bodies. In other words, it's personal.)
Outside of those categories, green products remain the exception rather than the rule. Can you name any trusted, mass-marketed brands of apparel or footwear that pass some reasonable green screen -- made from organic or recycled materials, naturally dyed, nontoxic, using environmentally friendly processes, etc.? True, Nike has a single product line that comes close, and there are many smaller firms with terrific green products but sparse distribution. But there's no Green Gucci, Gap, or Guess.
What about home furnishings? Any mainstream brands you can think of that are earnestly green? Or appliances, cameras, carpeting, consumer electronics, jewelry, kitchenware, sporting goods, tools, toys? Don't even get me started about cars!
(I'm guessing this post will elicit comments and e-mails touting small, niche companies that are making and selling environmentally exemplar products, and I welcome knowing about them. I see many of them during my periodic scans of Treehugger, Metaefficient, HippyShopper, and other sites. But how many can you purchase today, somewhere close to home?)
There are some encouraging signs. Last week, Panasonic announced the launch of Panasonic Home and Environment Co., a new business unit focusing on energy-efficient consumer products and what it calls "green technology." Home Depot recently launched Eco Options, a line of products that meet "a rigorous set of criteria" covering energy efficiency, water efficiency, improved air quality, reduced toxicity, waste reduction, and greener materials. But only in Canada; Eco Options aren't available in the U.S. And of course there's Wal-Mart, which in recent months has committed to developing markets for sustainably harvested fish, organic cotton, and other sustainable products.
Also encouraging is that some big-time entrepreneurs are moving into the space, not the least of which is Steve Case, father of AOL, whose start-up, Revolution Living, is buying or investing in sustainability-minded brands like Gaiam and FlexCar. Case will find competition over the next year or so from other well-financed entrepreneurs, currently in stealth mode, seeking to do similar start-ups or roll-ups of consumer-facing green lifestyle brands.
It's all good, of course, but the pace of change still seems oh-so-slow. The green marketplace remains barely a blip on the screen for most consumer brands and retailers. So, what would it take to reach the proverbial tipping point -- that virtuous cycle in which large, mainstream companies trip over one another trying to "out-green" the competition, offering a dizzying array of environmentally better product, available where most people live and shop?
Should we even look to big companies? Perhaps the mass-marketing of greener products will come from smaller, niche firms, some destined to become acquired by the behemoths, most left to find their comfortable, profitable market. Or perhaps it will be a whole new breed of ambitious entrepreneurs and venture capitalists funding the green world's version of the high-flying dot-com success stories. Or, ideally, all of the above.
Whatever the answer, it needs to happen soon. There seems to be a window of opportunity -- a burgeoning recognition by the public that we need new choices to help us combat climate change, global terrorism, toxic lifestyles, sweatshops, corporate malfeasance, commodification, and assorted other societal ills.
How can we make good, green products -- the things we use every day -- common and abundant? Should we look to Wal-Mart and Home Depot as the green market makers? Or, if not them, who?