Here’s an idea: Let’s all wear green clothes. Every day. Let’s drive green cars. And live in green houses. I mean green like Kermit. Ridiculous, right? It’s easy to imagine the response in the boardroom at the receiving end of this pitch.
Is it any wonder why a marketing appeal for behavior change to more sustainable choices in things like clothes, cars and household products is falling flat? By asking people to choose “green,” we are limiting our reach and isolating environmentalism from other social issues. We may not require people to literally put it on, but we’re asking them to adopt it. And that’s just as tough.
Lots of smart people have tried to work around this. Adam Werbach of Saatchi and Saatchi, one of the first to suggest that “green is dead,” proposed that environmentalism should be rebranded “blue.” It was a novel idea. But run the scenario above with the new color and you get the same outcome. Plus, say “I am blue” or “I blue the office” out loud and you’ll see why this won’t work.
As “Great Transition” thinker Paul Raskin articulates, “For social change (to occur) it takes a popular movement to convert grievance and longing into practical action of sufficient effectiveness and tenacity to overcome the inertia of culture and the resistance of entrenched interests.”
Recently, a researcher at Vermont Law, Marianne Tyrrell, reflected on this and wrote, “For this movement to occur, three components are necessary: 1) engaged dialogues; 2) a shared vision that arises from these dialogues; and 3) new forms of leadership to catalyze, support and maintain this transformation.”
Further, “as people increasingly view themselves as having shared goals and aspirations, both human solidarity and the potential for cultural transformation increase.”
Clearly, “green” is not a sustainable platform for this shared vision. Just ask anyone in a car dealership weighing the ROI of buying a hybrid while cheaper “fuel efficient” options are right there. Or try to sell air sealing and insulation upgrades to a family on social assistance or welfare. We “green marketers” are failing because we are trying to promote products and services with language that’s associated with a marginalized movement, and in ways that don’t connect with what people really care about –- the stuff that keeps them awake at night.
Recently, the term “sustainability” has been deployed in an attempt to strengthen and broaden the green fabric by weaving in social and economic justice and things like meeting the aspirations of first nations peoples. But, really, ask three smart people at a conference or think-tank gathering to define sustainability, and you’ll get three different answers. And don’t bother asking the people beyond those gilded walls.
To foster engaged dialogue, a shared vision, and new leadership, “green marketing” has to change. Instead of promoting specific, siloed choices, or a lifestyle that is precariously perched on a color, perhaps we should be marketing the evolution of common capacity-building tools that local groups of all types could use to stimulate and share these “dialogues.”
By using our collective marketing might to facilitate sharing, solidarity and dialogue among very different groups, we could enable existing advocates and local NGOs to be more effective at what they do (in environment, elder care, health, education, etc.) and thereby enable them to work better together.
Maybe then, and only then, the shape and color of the new transformational movement will arise organically. And it will be something that’s easy to be.