Is It Up To Marketers To Save The Earth?

Today is Earth Day, an event that began as a “teach-in” in 1970 and now is purportedly celebrated by upwards of one billion people in 192 countries around the globe and is the occasion for all sorts of enterprising media packages telling us everything from how sports stadiums like Philly’s Franklin Field are learning to “hold the carbon-emitting negativity” to Canon Marketing in Taiwan inviting employees and others to a tree-planting event to what cheap compost bins to buy for our own patches of suburbia.

And back in the nitty-gritty world of moving product, the New York Times’ Jane L. Levere takes a look at how Clorox’ Green Works line is using the day to introduce a fund-raising promotion on Twitter that’s part of a revamp of its marketing strategy that began in January with a recommendation that retailers eliminate a 20% price premium for its products.

“Green Works has fallen a long way since it first launched in 2008,” Renée Frojo reported in the San Francisco Business Times in February. “With sales topping $100 million, the line was an instant hit when it was first introduced, snatching up more than half the market for natural home cleaning products. But when the recession really hit home, Americans proved to be fickle about their eco-consciousness. Sales for the company quickly fell to about $60 million a year.”

“The new strategy -- which Green Works’ brand manager Shekinah Eliassen said was meant to promote its products as being ‘affordable, effective, accessible and approachable’ -- no doubt stems from a precipitous decline in sales,” Eliassen writes.

Green Works’ “You don’t have to be serious to be green” Twitter campaign asks consumers to post a joke to @GreenWorks for which it will donate a dollar, up to $20,000, to the Environmental Media Association’s school gardens project. This follows other lighter-hearted efforts, Levere reports, such as a magazine ad campaign with headlines like “You don’t have to be perfect to be green” and a YouTube series titled “The Green Housewives: Free Range and Out of Control!”

Humor aside, whither green marketing is a question up for debate.

Green marketing needs to be an ongoing commitment, not a one-day event, writes Suzanne C. Shelton on GreenBiz.com in a story that responds to a LinkedIn piece last month by GreenBiz Group’s chairman and executive editor Joel Makower titled “5 Reasons Green Marketing Is Going Nowhere.”

“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” Makower asserted before laying out his arguments for why “green marketing” should be put to rest.

“Companies' marketing efforts have been largely half-hearted, humorless and uninspired. Green products themselves have been variously underwhelming, overpriced, inconvenient, ineffective or unavailable,” he writes, while later pointing out that “most of what we buy has become greener in spite of our unwavering shopping habits” because companies have discovered many sound business reasons to do so. This includes cutting costs, eliminating waste and inefficiency, improving quality and engaging employees. But they aren’t making a big deal about it in their marketing efforts.

Shelton, whose Shelton Group is an ad agency that focuses on “motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices,” writes that Green Works indeed ran up against the reality that only 22% of the population is willing to pay a price premium for green products. But Shelton’s Eco Pulse surveys show that nearly 50% of consumers consider a company’s environmental reputation. 

“We also know that ‘corporate reputation’ is now the No. 3 way a consumer decides if a product is green (up from the No. 8 slot four years ago),” she writes. “So every company in America should be figuring out how to package their corporate sustainability story and leverage it at the brand level -- which sounds an awful lot like ‘green marketing’ to me.”

Meanwhile, Eric Ryan, co-founder of San Francisco agency Method, says “it’s going to be up to green marketers to save the world.” He tells Guardian Sustainable Business’ Adam Vaughn that: "The only way we're going to solve sustainability is through changing consumer behavior. There's too much money at work for government to put enough regulation in place to make businesses change.”

If you want to get cracking on that assignment, you might start with the Earth Day Network website, which contains information on sustainability projects and news from around the world. The theme for 2013 is “The Face of Climate Change” and the site features images ranging from “a man in the Maldives worried about relocating his family as sea levels rise” to “a child in New Jersey who lost her home to a super-storm.”

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