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Sustainability is Not a Color – Sustainability is Transparent.

Green was an obvious color to hang the environmental renaissance on. It was a reclaiming of the old pejorative “greenies” and “treehuggers.” Both of those terms have been reclaimed by the fringe, but then quickly co-opted on the mainstream as a movement. From green-collar jobs to green-washing and from green-tech to green-building, there’s no shortage of using the color as a shortcut to simply imply sustainability.

And that’s exactly what it is. A visual shortcut. UPS: Brown. DHL: Yellow. FedEx: Orange and Purple. These, of course, are shortcuts to brand understanding. But Green doesn’t enjoy the luxury of consistency behind the brand. It’s a thin varnish on top of a vast array of brands and ideas.

Colors don’t work well for movements. The movement might get moving around a color, but it won’t get far relying on a color. And shortcuts, like coal or fossil fuels, don’t get us there the right way either.

Some nouveau-environmentalist and entrepreneurial ad agencies are trying to re-brand (a move akin to dogs marking territory) the environmental movement as “blue.” “Blue is the new Green,” they say. One argument goes that “the earth is mostly water, the sky is mostly blue,” so Blue is the best natural color of a deeper level of business-driven environmental movement. Some even claim this shift to be one of the greatest marketing trends of the coming year. Ultimately, it is nothing more than a new flavor of vanilla ice cream. It is a skipping stone, superficial and doomed to sink.

The recent flock of businesses to use green as a primary logo color, trademark or patent has been just short of deluge. Over 300,000 green trademarks were filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2007. Will we see the same rush to re-brand as blue? Doubtful. People are smarter than to fall for what amounts to little more than a bait and switch con.

Color wars serve to derail a movement, not push it forward.

Colors are not things. Colors are not ideas. Colors are not solutions. Colors are shortcuts. Colors are brand strategies not branded solutions.

True sustainability does not need color. Cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan said that, “mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth.”  Same goes for Green or Blue.  They offer the illusion of sustainability, the spectacle of sustainability.

Sustainability is transparent, void of obscuring color.  It is clear, open, and visible.  Sustainability is naked.

John Rooks is the President/Founder of The SOAP Group (Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners) – an advocacy company developing sustainability communication programs for corporations, start-ups, non-profits, traditional ad agencies and all the crevices in between.

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4 thoughts on “Sustainability is Not a Color – Sustainability is Transparent.

  1. John

    There is a great post at Lazy Environmentalist called “Re-Branding Sustainability For The Great Majority” that I thinks goes well with your line.

    The problem as I see it is that when you say cleantech or sustainability, the first thoughts are trees… solar.. wind…hybrid cars!

    Other equally important issues like water, built environment, and agriculture are rarely associated.. and to get someone to draw the line to populations, urban planning, and transportation systems is a real stretch.

    and in the end..under the current branding.. the only color combo that works is green…


  2. Thank you John for the framing… and reality check on what sustainable ‘is’ and ‘isn’t…

    Beyond supply chains, material specs (et al) , an area that I think has high relevance to transparency is energy. I’m looking forward to the push towards smart infrastructure based on sensors, software, and storage.

    Garry G

  3. john,

    good points here. i wanted to add one thing re: “Blue”

    this idea was pushed initially (i believe) by Adam Werbach, sustainability consultant for Wal-Mart. note that wal-mart’s main color is blue.

    i don’t think that alone is enough to discount the whole idea of taking a step higher on the color spectrum to represent better sustainability practices, but from a branding perspective, it will be quite the marketing coup if Werbach is able to get the wheels rolling enough on “blue” for it to turn into a mainstream meme w/ his main client reaping the rewards along the way.

    two cents…

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