Industry Watch: Project Green House
As the home market gets eco-sensitive, sites cater to concerns
If the idea of eco-friendly home décor conjures images of hemp macramé wall hangings, it’s time to refresh your browser. Stylish furniture, home accents and appliances that are environmentally sound are being marketed online to consumers who want to create inviting homes while minimizing their carbon footprints.
The movement is called LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) a market segment focused on health and fitness, the environment, personal development, sustainable living and social justice, according to the nonprofit group of the same name.
“It recognizes the market that serves consumers that want to buy products that are in line with their values as opposed to price values,” says LOHAS director Ted Ning.
And there are many of them. According to the Natural Marketing Institute’s 2007 LOHAS Consumer Trends Database, 19 percent, or 40 million, U.S. adults are classified as LOHAS consumers, or “Lohasians.” In addition, 48 percent of the general population said they prefer to purchase products that are manufactured in a sustainable manner, and 31 percent of the general population said they buy as many “green/eco-friendly” products as they can.
Ning says there are several touch points marketers should recognize when targeting LOHAS consumers: Tell a story that’s personable and authentic; be able to demonstrate transparency in business practices; and promote any third-party certifications or endorsements that the business is eco-friendly.
At the same time, he says, they need to maintain an online presence that is “equal if not better than conventional counterparts’ presentation. Products are not sold on mission alone — [they have] to provide performance or quality. Today’s consumer is savvy enough to know and also very demanding.”
To that end, SRB Marketing in Denville, N.J., is an interactive agency that serves green clients. Since the agency started in 2003, the landscape has changed dramatically, in part due to Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, says founder and managing director Perry Goldschein.
“Those really hit home on sustainability issues for people,” Goldschein says, adding that there now is much greater interest among Fortune 1,000 companies to be green.
Along with the interest, he says, comes more “greenwashing,” or false claims of sustainability, by companies trying to hop on the green bandwagon. SRB Marketing works with mostly small to mid-sized companies, such as Ben & Jerry’s and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, that “have green in their DNA, a triple bottom line. It’s not just profit, but people and planet.”
So how, exactly, are companies reaching LOHAS buyers? In addition to e-mail marketing campaigns for clients, SRB Marketing often buys ads and search terms on environmental portal Care2, LOHAS social networking site Zaadz, spiritual portal Beliefnet and other sites and blogs that are a psychographic rather than demographic fit.
Goldschein says most clients are looking for direct response, and they get a better return with niche list owners and publishers whose audiences might only reach the low seven-digits rather than making buys on larger, more mainstream portals.
As the LOHAS movement gains momentum, many retailers are adjusting their businesses to accommodate consumers.
San Rafael, Calif.-based organicstyle.com, which launched in November as an expansion of sustainable flower site organicbouquet.com, sells home, garden, bed and bath products, as well as apparel, food and flowers. Founder and CEO Gerald Prolman says the move was “in response to tremendous consumer demand, and in keeping with our original vision for the company to be an eco-lifestyle destination offering inspiring products that are produced in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.”
To support the launch, the company used e-mail marketing among its existing customer base, as well as search marketing campaigns, online promotions and charitable partnerships with 45 nonprofits, which provided access to more than 10 million LOHAS consumers, Prolman says. In the first quarter of 2008, OrganicStyle will offer, as a customer premium, an online magazine as an affiliate marketing tool discussing green themes.
Also in response to growing interest in eco-friendly products, comparison shopping site pricegrabber.com launched an offshoot, shopgreen.pricegrabber.com, in June, which features environmentally friendly home and garden products and appliances. And online shoppers can find an array of items for a green home on sites like Gaiam, VivaTerra, Equita, GrassrootsStore, Vivavi and Green Home.
The challenge facing all marketers trying to reach LOHAS consumers is maintaining credibility in a market with fluid standards and lots of opinions. Other than a few third-party certifying bodies such as the various fair trade associations and state and federal government certifiers, there seem to be as many definitions of sustainability as there are LOHAS adherents.
“There are all sorts of people in our movement, people who aren’t ever satisfied with the efforts of a for-profit company just because they’re making a profit,” Goldschein says. “Those are the true radicals who just don’t see any balance in the world. We really make a genuine effort. If we’re working with [companies], they’re generally operating in a way or producing a product or doing something else in important ways that take into account society and the environment.”
Similarly, PriceGrabber president Ron LaPierre said that in order to determine which products were truly up to LOHAS standards, the company evaluated more than 12 million items in its database and concluded that about 20,000 were worthy of placement on the new ShopGreen site based on Energy Star ratings, use of organic materials and low usage of natural resources.
But PriceGrabber also relies on feedback from customers through the Web site to suggest new items or point out mistakes, which he says can happen a lot among LOHAS believers of varying degrees. “We do not claim to be experts on green products,” LaPierre says, adding, “There’s always a lot of gray area between what’s green or not. Everybody can agree to disagree.”
Many LOHAS consumers gravitate to sites that support green living, such as SustainLane, Treehugger, Lime, Grist and Conscious Enlightenment. To provide similar insights, ShopGreen features BlogGreen, written by several bloggers in the LOHAS movement. The company also donates five percent of ShopGreen profits each month to different eco-friendly charities that receive the most votes from users.
It’s that kind of involvement with the LOHAS community that will help retailers, Ning says. “Communities are much more the rage for the younger generation,” he says, adding that storefronts should suggest additional items or provide “some components that allow a further exploration of ideas or products that may not be considered by that end user.”
Ning predicted that making such efforts now will pay off in the future. “LOHAS consumers are really the innovators and trendsetters who bring into awareness great products and initiatives that then become mainstream,” he says. “They’re evangelists of green products, really, and what companies really want is word-of-mouth.”