Suddenly we all get it. If we don't change how we grow, manufacture, fuel and dispose of things, we're going to have BIG problems. At least we think we get it, or we very badly want to. Turns out it's not that easy. The month of April, which includes Earth Day, has brought a flood of media articles on companies providing products or services to help us live green. Peppered with words ranging from sustainable to carbon neutral to organic to natural to environmentally-friendly, it's not always clear what these terms mean or how we can tell if the companies professing to embrace those policies really do. A small sampling of this week's green announcements:
- Ford announced a new position: senior vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering, the first executive (according to the NY Times (reg required) article) at a Detroit auto company to have sustainability in her job title.
- Wal-Mart launched a new TV campaign and accompanying website, encouraging it's 180 million shoppers to purchase one pair of organic pajama pants, which would save over a million pounds of pesticide from going into the earth.
- Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive launched sprig.com, a new eco-friendly site targeted (according the the company's press release) to "the sophisticated and stylish woman who also aims to integrate environmentally-friendly choices into her life." Overseen by former Organic Style editor Jeanie Pyun, the site provides information on a range of products and services that are less demanding on the environment, from skin care and apparel to cleaning products and furniture.
Wal-Mart's green efforts have been a double-edged sword for the retailer, inspiring criticism from a wide range of activist groups for misleading the public (often expresssed by the term greenwashing) about the amount of organic products they carry (a recent Business Week story counted 200, Wal-Mart insists it carries 400) as well as deliberately mislabeling products as organic. Cadbury Schweppes removed the "all natural" claim from their 7-UP packaging last summer after they were threatened with a lawsuit for misleading the public when high fructose corn syrup remained one of the soft drink's key ingredients.
The current jargon, technical terminology and confusing laws around what makes a product "green" or "organic" don't help consumers to easily navigate what is and isn't true. Most of us just want to do the right thing, as evidenced by the response to Wal-Mart's new research initiative, The Live Better Index, which is designed to offer the company an "ongoing barometer of consumer attitudes and shopping behaviors." A sampling of response as reported in Media Post -
While 57% of Americans now say they are extremely concerned about the environment, only 43% of those in the Wal-Mart survey think they will be "extremely green" in the next five years. And only 11% of Americans say they are "extremely green" today. Overall, 62 % say they would buy more eco-friendly products if there were no price difference.
Sustainability will soon be a part of every brand's strategic platform, but how that is communicated to customers and the public at large will be critical. Our advice - keep it simple. A cue we can take from Wal-Mart is the simplicity of the "one organic pajama pant x 180 million customers = a million less pounds of pesticide" equation. Easy, accessible, with a quantifiable impact.
How can your brand simplify it's socially responsible messaging so that your customers can understand, participate and - most importantly - always count on you to deliver?