Time To Move Beyond Green Marketing

A new report from my company, Verdantix, identifies two agencies, Cone and OgilvyEarth, as leaders in a new discipline we call "sustainability communications."

Why sustainability communications instead of green marketing? This may be heresy in a newsletter named Marketing:Green, but we believe that green marketing is inadequate. Its focus of promoting a feature like recycled content ignores other environmental impacts embodied in the manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of products. This superficiality has exposed many brands to charges of "greenwashing."

"Sustainability" describes a more holistic, systemic approach that many companies are undertaking to decrease impact across the "cradle-to-grave" product lifecycle. One of the most visible examples is Walmart's Supplier Sustainability Assessment: 15 questions in the areas of energy, materials, natural resources and social impacts that the retailer uses in deciding whether to do business with the supplier.

But communicating this holistic approach doesn't fit neatly in marketing's classic features and benefits mindset. Nor does sustainability's multi-faceted nature fit with marketing's desire to find a single compelling benefit.

That's why we believe the time has come for "sustainability communications." Instead of focusing on product features, it roots the communications strategy in the firm's overall sustainability goals, strategy, and progress. Instead of spinning past accomplishments into a self-congratulatory CSR report, it provides a transparent view of data about the firm's environmental impacts, acknowledging where improvement is still needed. And instead of its goal being persuasion, it aims to engage consumers, employees, investors and business partners in contributing to the firm's sustainability achievements.

Among the 18 PR firms, advertising agencies, brand identity consultants, and sustainability communications boutiques that we evaluated against the concept of sustainability communications, there is some good news. All of the firms demonstrated a planning process that weeded out the greenwash claims that have given green marketing a bad reputation.

Now the not-so-good news: 11 of the firms are stuck in a traditional "tell a good story" mindset. Their advertising and public relations messages are generally accurate, documented with data, and demonstrate real progress. But sustainability communications leaders take a more forward-looking stance with a vision of true sustainability and humility about how much further they must go to fulfill their vision.

Now the really bad news: with the exception of Cone, none of the agencies is doing an adequate job of walking the walk. All agencies have a range of energy- and waste-reduction initiatives but these activities aren't tied to an overall goal. They track their environmental impact to comply with their parent company's requirements but don't strive to innovate. This is inadequate in an area where being an environmental leader has long meant going beyond compliance.

But here's a bright spot: the two leaders, Cone and OgilvyEarth, are developing approaches that embed sustainability as a core brand value. They recognize that as sustainability becomes embedded in a company's strategy and operational processes, it can change the nature of the brand and the relationship the consumer has with the brand. These two firms build brand platforms that make the consumer and other stakeholders the company's partners in solving big environmental problems.

To see this approach, I encourage you to check out Cone's "Shared Responsibility" approach and client Timberland's Earthkeepers' program. Ogilvy Earth's "From Greenwash to Great" whitepaper is also a useful resource.

Verdantix is hosting a free webinar on Sept. 9 at noon ET to present the findings of the report in more detail.

It's still early days in the evolution of sustainability communications. The strategies and tactics will continue to evolve and likely new leaders will emerge. One thing is certain: those who stick to tried-and-true green marketing approaches will fall further and further behind.

8 comments about "Time To Move Beyond Green Marketing ".
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  1. Andrea Learned from Learned On, LLC, September 7, 2010 at 4:15 p.m.

    Very interesting findings, Jim - but not that surprising, I suppose. Marketing/PR firms who want to "get in on the green" have the same learning curve that brands have. For most, the first thing they do when a new trend in business emerges is tell potential clients - "we're that!" (be it marketing to women or green marketing etc...) It's that too-quick solution/slap on a label syndrome.

    The agencies and firms that will get to true sustainability communications, as you have so well defined it, have either stayed under the radar a bit until they got the hang of embedding sustainability as a core brand value, OR - though they started too soon with the green label and had to regroup/admit their own sustainability journey, they have learned a ton and get better through missteps/hard knocks. Sustainability communications is a field that represents the stops and starts and complex path of any industry trying to get it right. This is a great discussion to keep going...

  2. Lynn Colwell from The Green Year, LLC, September 7, 2010 at 4:31 p.m.

    As Andrea says, this is not at all surprising. The learning curve is not as difficult as the "buy-in" curve, where companies see the necessity of doing right so that it will positively impact their bottom line.

    I love the line, "embedding sustainability as a core value in your company." This is what we encourage even one-person operations to do with their business. We have five questions we ask about their products and their company before we agree to review their products or use them in our media events--TV etc. They don't have to answer all five as we'd like, but in general we do need to see that they are making an effort.

    What has been heartening is the number of companies that have told us just being asked these questions has forced them to look at what they are claiming as well as doing, in a new light.

  3. Hank Stewart from Green Team, September 7, 2010 at 5:59 p.m.

    What are we, chopped liver? Green Team has been doing sustainability communications for over 17 years. We’ve worked with Fortune 100 corporations, over 30 NGOs, social entrepreneurs, governments, puppets, paupers, pirates, poets, pawns and kings...and this is the recognition we get? Not only should we be on the Verdantix matrix, we should have our own quadrant!

    All kidding aside (we haven’t actually worked with pirates), this piece does a nice job of distinguishing between sustainability and environmental communications, as well underlining the importance of transparency and reaching out to a variety of stakeholders.

    It’s very disappointing, however, to read that so many of these agencies are not walking the talk. We’ve undertaken numerous steps to reduce our environmental footprint, though not as many as we’d like. We’re happy to share details with anyone who’s interested.

    Finally, congratulations to Cone and Ogilvy Earth for rising to the top of the heap. We have friends in each of these organizations, and can testify to their genuine passion and commitment to the sustainability movement.

  4. Kathleen Gray, September 8, 2010 at 12:58 a.m.

    Going off what Andrea said, I think that a lot of the true sustainable communication firms are still under the radar. Not because they haven’t necessarily developed their approach but because they aren’t a part of these giant firms with the same revenue and resources that this report mentions.

    In my few years of observing this industry grow I've learned that there is a certain genuineness that the established green communication agencies hold (the ones who were "green" before it was trendy) and the newer, bigger ones are yet to truly emulate. Hank, I think Green Team is ahead of the curve. Not only in terms of establishing yourselves as a green communications agency but also in "walking the walk". I remember reading a few blog posts about how you were taking steps to green your office in NYC-- even small things like emptying your used coffee grounds into your flower pots instead of down the drain and polluting the water. I'm sure there are many other steps you've taken to become more sustainable but my point is that you actually cared about taking these steps in the first place. A lot of companies won't go beyond solar panels and low flow toilets while greening their office.

    This difference between the new and the established is similar to what I’ve seen in the restaurant industry-- there are restaurants starting to boast about how they are “green” and have locally-sourced food but then there are the chefs and restaurants that have been using locally-sourced food for years yet will never boast about it or name drop farms on their menu. Why? It's simply what they do. It makes the most sense to run their business that way and wouldn't think of doing it any other way.

    What's awesome about this report is the bigger picture of what's happening here-- whether we're talking about the established sustainable communication firms or the newer ones-- it's exciting to see that this sector has developed into what it is today. Thank you for pointing out that these companies need to begin “walking the walk”.

    It’s important to realize that 18 big firms can't take on the world by themselves and that all the small sustainable communication firms matter too. We're going to need a lot of help to instill change consumers' habits. This industry is a business and revenue and reputation are as important as ever but it's important to remember we all have this bigger obligation too.

  5. James Nail from Forrester Research, September 8, 2010 at 10:16 a.m.

    Andrea, Lynn: thanks for your comments. Lynn: I love your comment about the buy-in curve! The agencies are definitely experiencing it as almost all of these practices were started by one or two passionate people and management didn't so much support them as simply stay out of their way to see what would happen. I heard some of this as well at companies

    Andrea: the hard part of sustainability communications is that it goes against many of the marketing instincts we've been indoctrinated with. You need to be humble, admit you haven't solved all the problems, be transparent with both accomplishments and places you've fallen short. This is incredibly hard for companies, but somehow they haven't yet learned the lesson that if you try to fake it, and someone outs you, it is worse for you than if you disclosed information yourself.

  6. James Nail from Forrester Research, September 8, 2010 at 10:21 a.m.

    Kathleen and Hank: Thanks for raising the issue of the smaller sustainability communications agencies. As you can imagine, for this first report I had to cut off the list somewhere. I hope will become an ongoing stream of research. My report does show that while most firms turn to their PR agency of record for their sustainability communications, 40% work with a smaller specialist organization, too.

  7. marty mcdonald, September 29, 2010 at 1:08 a.m.

    Strange article. Ogilvy is the firm behind Beyond Petroleum. I wonder what the methodology was for this.

  8. JIm Bowes, October 11, 2010 at 5:59 a.m.

    In Europe we have made the move away from "Green" and towards sustainability. In our opinion, "Green" has many emotional challenges associated with it. The "Green" movement can be quite terrifying to companies and is often seen as almost fanatical- ready to attack at any moment - very vocal and social media savy - a deadly combination of any company dabbling with changing its ways.

    Sustainablity on the other hand is about a balance between People, Planet and Profit and is simply a much better business proposition. A company should not do something just because it is green. If doing something costs too much because it is green then it is out of balance with profitability. If it is profitable but at the expense of people working in bad conditions it then is out of balance with the social aspect.

    Sustainability is a much broader term that allows for companies to become better corporate citizens in more ways.

    It is great to see that the USA is now beginning to think in these terms as we believe they will deliver a much bigger return then "Green" alone.

    "Green" unfortunately, just scares a lot of companies and understandably so. The Green community of which we are active members, tends to attack quickly and only looks at a companies short falls instead of their successes.

    Green or sustainable is a journey. It can not be completed in a single bound. What is important is that companies are taking steps towards becoming better corporate citizens and we believe the sustainable communications proposition allows them to do so with less risk and more opportunities.

    We are not perfect, far from it. But we strive to get better everyday. We remain humble and under claim. We too have been criticized for our impact to the environment and rightly so but all business activities have an impact on the environment. We try to make up for that impact in other ways.

    Jim Bowes
    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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