Green Marketing 2.0: This Time It's Serious

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by: Joel Makower

Green marketing is back, and while some may cavil that it never went away, the quality and quantity of marketing messages has shifted markedly in recent months. By all indications, this time it's no longer a half-hearted, fringe activity.

It's been more than seventeen years since my book, The Green Consumer, was published in the U.S. That took place during the media frenzy of Earth Day 1990, when the world (or at least some of it) awakened to many of the significant environmental challenges we face. We were told by bestselling authors and other self-appointed mavens that the planet was ailing but that doing "simple things" could save the earth, and we felt empowered.

At the time, it seemed like the floodgates of greener products were about to open. Large consumer product companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever were dipping their corporate toes into the green waters, with the expectation that they would eventually dive in. Big retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart conducted in-store promos featuring greener products.

We could smell change coming.

It didn't come. Many of those early products were outright failures: biodegradable trash bags that didn't degrade (or degraded a little too quickly); clunky fluorescent bulbs that emitted horrible hues; recycled paper products with the softness of sandpaper; greener cleaners that couldn't cut the mustard, literally. Many of these products were expensive and hard to find. The Federal Trade Commission weighed in during the early 1990s, eventually slapping a few prominent marketers on their corporate wrists.

Now, after years of false starts, a growing number of mainstream success stories suggest that green marketing finally is more than an environmentalist's pipe dream. The Financial Times reported earlier this year that the biggest advertising agencies, including Ogilvy, Y&R, and Saatchi & Saatchi, are predicting a wave of green marketing campaigns as businesses compete on their environmental platforms. "Agencies say communicating green values is fast becoming an act of 'corporate hygiene' needed to retain competitiveness and standing with customers," said FT, adding: "Advertisers that make green claims for products and services however face unprecedented public scrutiny, particularly from bloggers and other web users."

Companies are finding their way through the thicket of scrutiny. Home Depot and Wal-Mart are back in the green-marketing game, as are smaller, niche players from TerraCycle to Terrapass. The lessons learned from these and scores of other firms are helping shape the future of green marketing — and, in some cases, the future of the marketplace itself.

Clearly, companies need help, and there seems to be plenty of it. This fall, there are no fewer than four significant green marketing conferences — up from zero just a year ago. In chronological order:

  • Sustainable Life Media is hosting Sustainable Brands '07 in New Orleans, Sept. 26-28, the maiden event for this new company. Billed as an opportunity to "learn from the leaders," it features presentations from Aveda, BP, GE, Wal-mart, and others. "We're in the middle of a perfect storm of forces that has caused today's interest in green to catch fire with a much broader audience than in the past," SLM president KoAnn Skrzyniarz told me recently. "Among other things, we are a more aware and empowered population this time around thanks to the Internet. When you see 'tree huggers' on the one hand, and the evangelical community on the other, unite on a topic such as the environment, there's no turning back."


  • On October 3, PRWeek is hosting Target Green: Collaborating for Change, in Washington, D.C. The one-day conference "features speakers from corporations, government agencies, NGOs, and the media, discussing how various stakeholders are driving a holistic approach to a green future," according to the organizers. Presenters include representatives from Canon, Clear Channel, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble, among others.


  • London will be the venue for a Green Marketing Forum on November 28-30. That event features "14 incisive case studies," offering insight "from early adopters [about] what works and what doesn't." Featured companies include Barclaycard, BMW, Intel, Marks & Spencer, Philips Lighting, and Virgin Trains.


  • Last but not least, I'll be keynoting Good and Green, to be held in Chicago on November 29-30, presented by PME Enterprises, a veteran of marketing and branding events for the Madison Avenue crowd. "I would like to believe that most big advertising agencies are ahead of the curve on marketplace trends and on what will impact their client's brands and best interests," says PME president Nan McCann. "I would like to believe they eagerly seek to become educated before these topics become mainstream so their clients are prepared to maximize opportunities in the marketplace. But that just hasn't been my experience. It is their clients, the brands, who lead the way. When it comes to green, once again brands are driving Madison Avenue to catch up and get informed."

    It remains to be seen whether there's sufficient demand for all these assemblages, but the sheer number of events alone speaks volumes about the direction in which the marketplace is headed.

    Once again, we can smell change coming. 

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