Earth Day showed the best of limited-vision, promotion-centric corporate efforts this year. Everywhere I turned, I saw "action." A few companies had "wear green to work day," while others sent volunteers to plant bulbs, ran recycling collections for home electronics, outlawed plastic grocery bags for the day, collected donations for environmental nonprofits, or issued press releases on the company's positive impact on the environment.
Clearly, CSR and PR people are doing what they can from their positions. And their individual efforts add up to a mainstream embrace of Earth Day that accomplishes the first goal Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson (Democratic U.S. senator from and governor of Wisconsin) had in mind 41 years ago -- a day where all students, teachers, media, parents, corporate leaders and government leaders would come together to honor the earth and make it a priority in all decision making.
Earth Day is helping on the first point. We're focusing on the earth for a day. Corporations are thinking about steps they can take so they don't get criticized. And more legislators are pushing the larger point.
Now it's time to take on the bigger part of Gaylord's vision: Apply the energy to everyday practices that can make "green" a business approach and green marketing an authentic discipline with a clear ROI. Gaylord was fond of telling his followers (I produced six of the Earth Day campaigns and concerts and served on the Earth Day Network board for 15 years), "You cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy environment." The way he saw it, "the wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity ... that's where all the economic activity comes from."
That means the greatest potential for business growth lies in instituting sustainability because it is the right thing to do (for people, planet and company), not because it's a way to avoid being criticized. Now that your staff has stopped wearing green and the recycling bin is overflowing, how will your business support the environment?
The start is simpler than you might think. Every day I'm astonished at the fundamental, simple changes companies overlook. Real profit from green emanates from small actions, real actions, compounded daily, which make a company an authentic proponent.
1) Make a big push on the little things in Operations. Have you really done everything you can to reduce your environmental footprint of how you do business? Reducing the energy and waste from light bulbs to composting to computers (e.g., they don't all have to be on all night) can make an enormous difference for the environment. The actions make a company a leader, and the results become real stats you can remind people of continually. It's real, honest change that people can relate to and follow. And it will drop right to the bottom line.
2) Bring your suppliers into the program. Marketers command a network of resources on contract. All of these agencies can extend, or cancel out, the gains you make. Make reducing environmental footprint a requirement to doing business with you.
3) Attack your waste stream. Turn garbage into gold. There are companies that specialize in monetizing -- not simply eliminating -- environmental waste throughout operations. Consider working with one of them.
4) Analyze your life cycle. Find the hidden waste in your products' life cycles. What about the sale, use or disposal of your products generates waste? Bring the scientists in and create more efficient methods. Look at what Seventh Generation has done with its new compostable bottle!
5) Market for effect, not cause. Once you make a true commitment to sustainability, translating eco-change into business profit requires an integrated campaign geared to produce measurable change first, reputation and profit second. Nothing matches the customer loyalty, retention and brand differentiation -- the ingredients of sustainable sales gains -- that effect-oriented efforts produce.
Like a lot of us who've been in the game since its inception, I take some shots for arguing that you have to embrace the environment to succeed in business long-term. At its deepest level, though, green marketing is inseparable from environmental activism. For one thing, authenticity is the ante in social marketing; the louder you market "green," the deeper you have to live it. For another -- and this is the harsh truth Sen. Nelson knew -- it's suicide to build an economy by destroying its foundation.