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Green Marketing: How It Works and When to Use It

Marketing specialists are in agreement: green marketing campaigns exist and their clients should have one.  The debate begins when the question turns to actually knowing what green marketing is and the best way to employ it. Although the rampant confusion is understandable due to the current amorphous nature of green marketing, the original concept was quite simple. Green marketing emerged as “marketing of products that are assumed to be environmentally safe,” a simple enough definition by anyone’s standards. Unfortunately, the very simplicity of the initial definition provided excessive leeway for companies seeking to take advantage of green marketing, and the marketers creating their campaigns.

Although green marketing has experienced a recent resurgence as environmental issues are becoming incorporated into the public psyche, green marketing has been around for several decades. Green marketing began in the 1980’s, with the implementation of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Reports which provided an overview of companies’ environmental, social, and financial impacts. When consumers were able to monitor a company’s operational practices, they were better able to understand which companies were wasteful and which were implementing sustainable measures. With the establishment of CSRs and the publication of several books highlighting green marketing, the movement gained traction as well as evolved to become more profitable.

Over the relatively short history of green marketing, a movement that began as a way to incentivize the production of environmentally friendly products has degenerated into a mishmash of ideas, ethics, and confusion about what green products really are.

Take one product, attempt to make it environmentally friendly, and then tell everybody about it. That is current green marketing in a nutshell. With few standards, and very little labeling of any significance, the right to call a product environmentally friendly is practically limitless. Authenticity of labeling has further lost creditability as the pseudo-accepted authority, EnergyStar, has recently undergone an embarrassment in which some of the more egregious products deemed efficient were exposed – for example, the approval of a gas-powered alarm clock.

One of the few true determinants of a sustainable product is a demonstrably lower carbon footprint compared to competitors. Carbon dioxide, despite controversy, is widely considered to be one of the most common and detrimental greenhouse gases (GHGs) contributing to global warming. To truly reduce a product’s carbon footprint, the entire production process must be considered from manufacture to packaging to transport. For example, one of the masters of efficiency, IKEA, uses Optiledge for shipping. Optiledge utilizes recyclable plastic pallets rather than the traditional wood pallets. The reduction in weight requires less fuel for transportation, and the recyclable nature of the pallets allows them to be reused several times, therefore removing the need for continual manufacturing (a big carbon producer).

Although consumers often believe the claims companies make about products being environmentally friendly, the true test is the amount of carbon each product creates.

Companies have more than one reason to produce “environmentally friendly” products. Sustainability usually encourages efficiency. Creating a sustainable process for manufacture and distribution often results in lower overall costs in the long run. Once companies get over the sticker shock of the capital investments required to renovate and reduce environmental damage, they often realize that net revenues will increase. Profits remain a primary concern in a capitalist economy, as they should, and cost effectiveness is an additional, persuasive, reason to become environmentally friendly.

Although there is spirited debate about the reasoning behind social accountability, the fact remains that corporations are stepping up to become socially accountable. Part of accountability involves the effect a company’s actions will have on the environment of their consumers. The movement towards social corporate responsibility encompasses accountability for the environmental impacts of their products, a movement that results in both a reduced impact and recognition for sustainable efforts. Although today’s consumers are balancing complex lifestyle choices, environmental awareness is a growing factor in product selection.

Just as the definition of environmentally friendly is surrounded in confusion, so is the effectiveness of “green marketing.” While more traditional marketing campaigns can point to metrics to illustrate the effectiveness of an individual campaign, determining if consumers are making choices primarily dependent upon environmental concerns is nearly impossible. Surveys indicate that 78% of consumers consciously attempt to buy products that are environmentally friendly, but the problem remains pinpointing how to utilize a sustainable preference.

With consumers making their own decisions about what “environmentally friendly” means, producers are scrambling to capture the market and convey the sustainability of their products. Although modern consumers are making an active effort to buy more responsibly, many still have little knowledge about what phrases like “all-natural”, “non-toxic”, and “100% post-consumer recycled” truly mean. Further confusing the issue are the varying degrees of consumer interest in “green” products. According to Mintel, currently 12% of consumers are classified as those that attempt to buy a green product every time they make a purchase, while 68% of consumers will only occasionally pursue a green option. Marketers must include this discrepancy along with a consumer’s preference for price, quality, and luxury.

Many marketers take advantage of this confusion to exaggerate their claims or make their products appear to possess attributes that have no relevance on the determination of sustainability. There is a market for green products, a market that will yield considerable profit, but the crux of green marketing is understanding how to exploit demand in the green market.

Some companies have been able to create products with an emphasis on green initiatives that appeal to consumers. Perhaps one of the best examples is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL).  With a cost of 2-3 times that of their incandescent counterparts, CFL sales struggled when they were first introduced. Not until marketing campaigns underscored the sustainability of CFLs while promoting the energy savings (about $26/yr per bulb replaced) did sales outpace those of incandescent bulbs.

Another excellent example is Brita’s marketing campaign focused on the environmentally aware. By promising that the use of their product reduces plastic bottle waste and is less damaging to already depleted watersheds, Brita has increased sales of their water filters. In this case, green marketing was not supplemented by an appeal to sustainability but was used as a standalone policy.

When you think of a green consumer you might envision someone who cruises in a Prius while listening to NPR on the radio, but today’s green consumer may just as well be the soccer mom down the street. Green consumers aren’t conforming to the traditional idea of environmentalists.  They are spread across age, geographic, racial, and income groups.

Additionally, different groups consider different aspects of green products priorities, and these draws range from altruistic environmental protection to a purely financial concern due to the efficiency of most green products. Grasping an understanding of the “green” market, and doing it quickly, can be one of the best investments a company can make. However, churning out products that are supposedly green will no longer be an effective strategy as green consumers grow in both knowledge and number.

Green marketing campaigns can be successful, but assuming that reaping the benefits won’t require any more thought than a hastily created green campaign could be an unsustainable mistake. Products must actually have a reduced carbon footprint to be environmentally friendly, and marketing firms need to tout the sustainable aspects their target market consider the most important.

Emily McClendon is an environmental marketing specialist currently working at NeboWeb. She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P. in Environmental Planning, also at Georgia Institute of Technology.  She believes that communication and shared knowledge are the most important facets of conveying environmentally friendly practices. After participating in biological research, inter disciplinary planning, and interactive marketing, she is convinced a comprehensive approach is the only solution for creating a sustainable economy.

Emily McClendon
Emily McClendon is an environmental marketing specialist currently working at NeboWeb. She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P. in Environmental Planning, also at Georgia Institute of Technology. She believes that communication and shared knowledge are the most important facets of conveying environmentally friendly practices. After participating in biological research, inter disciplinary planning, and interactive marketing, she is convinced a comprehensive approach is the only solution for creating a sustainable economy.
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12 thoughts on “Green Marketing: How It Works and When to Use It

  1. Hi Emily,

    I enjoyed reading your post, but I must say as the owner of a green marketing agency, I disagree with several of your points.

    First off, the green “space” is huge. You state that for a product to be considered environmentally friendly “the true test is the amount of carbon each product creates.”

    Although I personally would like to see green products with reduced carbon footprints, that is more of a personal preference than the reality of the green consumer marketplace.

    First off, 80% of all household purchasers are women, most of whom are Moms. When those Moms think green, they think of non-toxic products that will not interfere with the health of their home or their children’s bodies.

    Second, there are many subniches within green. For many, the health of the oceans and the reduction of plastic use and waste is paramount. (Some call this blue rather than green, but for the sake of this argument, it is an important part of the definition of environmentally friendly products).

    Moreover, most consumers are far more conscious of disposal issues – products that can be recycled or are upcycled from post-consumer waste – than of carbon miles.

    Again, that doesn’t mean that as sustainable marketers we shouldn’t encourage our clients to reduce their carbon footprint – but to attempt to make that the sole benchmark for an environmentally friendly product is far too narrow a definition, in my opinion – particularly when it comes to the drivers of household purchasing – women.

    Thanks for your post and look forward to hearing others’ thoughts!


  2. Emily: good overview. The fact is companies need to stop thinking about “green marketing” and “environmentally friendly” products — these terms have long associations with the superficial changes and exaggerated claims that you document. Instead, companies need to think about “sustainability communications” and your IKEA example touches on that: focusing on how they are substantively changing operationally to be truly sustainable. PR, communications and marketing agencies must upgrade the advice they give their clients. I’ll be hosting a webinar in a couple of weeks on the capabilities of 18 top agencies: http://www.verdantix.com/index.cfm/papers/Webinar.Home

  3. We have just released a new packaging item for our plants to replace the 15 tons of plastic we used annually ..I am glad i found this link..I am determined to NOT over state..and have researched the water usage, energy usage in production, residues after decomposing..This ifformation was provided by a certied Lab in Europ. How ever I am seeking a US Lab to do the same testing and analysis for it..before I state any specific claims ..We DO Know the composition and I do Know, it is far superior than any plastic product..but again..I am concerned about the sceptical consumer..the name Green has been abused. Thge difference between compostable ans biodegradable are NOT the same ..How can we institue and educate ? whats the point of recycling plastic? what is the REAL environmental cost..convicning consumers that consuming billions of plastic bottles is ok? its sickenng Ideas? ( any Lab referrals?) thanks

  4. There’s one area of corporate Greenwash that really irks me and that’s the common claim from utility companies who say that getting bills on line is ‘better for the environment’.

    Encouraging customers to get their bills online and also stating that this is better for the environment is increasingly being questioned. In the past two months, faced with being reported to the Advertising Standards Association, (ASA), several very large nationally known UK organisations have stopped similar messages, having accepted they were being made without adequate research, contravening CSR Europe and CAP (Code of Advertising Practice) guidelines.

    Whilst the efficiency of electronic communication is clear and initiatives to reduce waste are to be encouraged, the Two Sides organisation, which exists to explore the Myths and Facts concerning the sustainability of Print and Paper, and has members spanning the whole Graphic Communications Value Chain, is concerned that incorrect and damaging impressions are being given if ‘go paperless’ initiatives are promoted as ‘green’ or seek to gain credibility by purporting to aid sustainability at the expense of the print and paper industry.

    It is increasingly clear that electronic communication and in particular the energy requirements of the increasing worldwide network of servers which are necessary to store all the information needed for immediate access, has a significant and increasing carbon footprint. Electronic document storage must be recognised as delivering efficiency but not sustainability. In the UK it has been suggested that PC’s and servers may consume up to 50% of household energy requirements in the next 10 years. Greenpeace has reported that electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream and there are extremely serious disposal costs emerging.

    All those who encourage customers to switch to e-billing, or any other form of electronic communication, largely to reduce costs, should re-examine their messages as it is certainly questionable whether e-billing or e-communication has a lower carbon footprint. In fact, with all the environmental costs of electronic communication and with many customers printing out their bills at home for reference, (a recent US study has assumed this between 10% and 30 % depending upon whether you are a business or private consumer), at a possible higher environmental cost than a centrally produced and distributed bill, print and paper may well be the environmentally sustainable way to communicate.

    Paper is a renewable and recyclable product that, if responsibly produced and consumed, is an environmentally sustainable media. It is often surprising to learn that in Europe, where 93% of our paper comes from, the area of forest has grown by 30% since 1950 and is increasing at a rate of 1.5 million football pitches every year.

    And with 55% of the worldwide forest harvest being consumed for fuel and 34% for construction and other uses, only 11% is actually directly used for making paper.

    So, if any organisation is using messages that e-billing, or any other form of electronic communication, is more environmentally friendly than traditional print and paper, they need to be challenged about the basis of their claim, their calculations used, and their exact assessment of the downstream consequential costs.

    Misleading environmental claims are not only increasingly being examined by regulators but jeopardise the livelihood of the many thousands of people employed in the Graphic Communications Value Chain.

    It is encouraging that responsible organisations are now thinking carefully about the statements they make and ensuring that they are not simply repeating old misconceptions.

  5. Great article Emily and certainly environmental issues should be at the forefront of all our businesses no matter what we do. But educating the public is certainly a very tough job with all the misinformation available in the internet. That is why articles like your are very important and informative. Our business is bottling water in 100% RPET bottles for Private Labeling. While it is not as Earth-Friendly as drinking from the tap, it is much more beneficial to the environment than using virgin plastic for bottling water. Independent test have shown using 100% Post Consumer Recycled Plastic has a 65% smaller Carbon footprint than using virgin plastic. It’s a step in the right direction. – MNR Water

  6. Hi Emily, Thank you for your article. Your background in science really comes through. However, the piece feels like it is lacking something from a marketing perspective. In fact the word ‘brand’ is not mentioned once in your piece or for that matter do any of the comments below it refer to the most fundamental of marketing pillars. I think it is safe to say that the debate shifted from Green Marketing years ago. Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘Green’ only serve to marginalise the message and the product in the mind of the consumer. Equally people do not understand the technicalities. Carbon, C02, GHGs it is all just jargon. In research we have looked at, only 13% of people understand what a Carbon Offset is for example. To position something as ‘lower carbon’ would be fundamentally wrong for most brands trying to get their sustainability messages out there. Instead marketing specialists focused on sustainability would be better to go back to the core principles of modern marketing communications. We need to get better at identifying how or audience lives, what they feel and what they need from a product perspective. Next we need to identify the most appropriate message. Finally we look for the most relevant and engaging communication channel to deliver our message. Sometimes the so called ‘green’ component of the message can simply act as a support for a much bigger and more interesting idea to build the brand and promote the product benefits. Research tells us that consumers have a pent up demand for more sustainable products and services. Their frustration is finding them easily. We also know through decades of brand and marketing communication practice that people want to be inspired and excited by the brands they buy. If you continue to push the ‘Green’ message you are missing the wood for the trees. ‘Green’ lacks differentiation and it is easily misunderstood. Instead we should be selling vision and leadership. This is what the most successful brands have been doing forever and yet the consumer is still very cynical about advertising and marketing (whilst at the same time loving the brands that they perceive are ‘good’). The fact that a sustainable product or service exists in a market place simply means it has a far richer and more engaging story to tell. So let’s tell that rather than rely on lazy cliches and confusing terminology. If you would like to see some examples of how you do this please visit http://www.republicofeveryone.com/portfolio
    Yours Sincerely, Matt

  7. Emily – great article! Don’t let the detracting comments on the web discourage you (i.e. being told not to use the word “green” as it is vague and seeing the advice comes from someone who uses the word green 3 times on the first page of their own website). Are people getting caught up in the details of the article and missing the point that marketing on sustainability needs to not just reach out to the target market but also be validated by a metric? I agree that carbon footprint may not cover all areas of sustainability 100% so I guess a suggestion for a follow-up to this article would be your thoughts on how to describe some of the other non-quantifiable aspects of sustainability. Maybe something similar to the microeconomic concept of “utility” – the satisfaction a consumer receives from consumption of the next incremental unit of a product.

    Great article and again, don’t let the comments discourage you!

  8. I enjoyed the article but….I’m with Lynn and Matt. I’m a mom so Lynn is definitely right on her points of how I buy as a consumer. I’m with Matt because I’m also a marketer. Even more so, I’ve led a global green marketing initiative for a European software company in B2B space. We NEVER communicated anything about reducing carbon footprints by metric tons–it means nothing to the average human. Instead we first showed our own corporate green credentials, our programs, values, actions and then we talked about our products in the language of benefits, economic and environmental, using language that was easily consumed and appreciated by the buyer. It was actually quite simple and successful. 🙂

    Next April, my book profiling REAL innovators in the green economy, small business owners, entrepreneurs, engineers, etc will publish. This book is the opposite of greenwashers…my interviewees are the folks creating sustainable businesses, new technologies and green jobs every day. http://www.latinnovating.com


  9. I think the most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, we need to get greener products into the hands of consumers and the best way to do this is to highlight primary benefits –e.g., that organic products simply taste better, or CFLs save money, etc.–and if we don’t mention green at all, so be it. Businesses will relish minimizing risk of greenwash. Consumers won’t be skeptical of green claims. Bottom line: let green drive innovation and inspiration, but let consumer benefits, not environmental attributes, drive communication. More detail about this in my soon to be released book, The New Rules of Green Marketing http://www.greenmarketing.com/our-book

  10. Emily – Great article. This is a tough subject to talk about because of the various “greenwashing” that is going on. It is also hard to market to the consumer in this economy. The consumer wants to be eco-friendly and lessen their footprint, but they are also hesitant to spend too much money. It is important for companies to stand by their claims and not overstate. I look forward to hearing more from you. A superb person to also gain Green Marketing perspectives is from our CEO, Paul Hannam. He is an Oxford fellow and very successful entrepreneur who has really taken the online green marketing to a whole new level!

  11. A great indication of true sustainability can be found not in expenditure, but in initiative and commitment. There are some groundbreaking efforts in finding innovative ways to reduce waste to landfill, like NISP and Wastivity.com, although like natural monopolies, unless there is scale there is no value.

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