Green marketing is back, and while some may cavil that it never went away, the quality and quantity of marketing messages has shifted markedly in recent months. By all indications, this time it's no longer a half-hearted, fringe activity.
It's been more than seventeen years since my book, The Green Consumer, was published in the U.S. That took place during the media frenzy of Earth Day 1990, when the world (or at least some of it) awakened to many of the significant environmental challenges we face. We were told by bestselling authors and other self-appointed mavens that the planet was ailing but that doing "simple things" could save the earth, and we felt empowered.
At the time, it seemed like the floodgates of greener products were about to open. Large consumer product companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever were dipping their corporate toes into the green waters, with the expectation that they would eventually dive in. Big retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart conducted in-store promos featuring greener products.
We could smell change coming.
It didn't come. Many of those early products were outright failures: biodegradable trash bags that didn't degrade (or degraded a little too quickly); clunky fluorescent bulbs that emitted horrible hues; recycled paper products with the softness of sandpaper; greener cleaners that couldn't cut the mustard, literally. Many of these products were expensive and hard to find. The Federal Trade Commission weighed in during the early 1990s, eventually slapping a few prominent marketers on their corporate wrists.
Now, after years of false starts, a growing number of mainstream success stories suggest that green marketing finally is more than an environmentalist's pipe dream. The Financial Times reported earlier this year that the biggest advertising agencies, including Ogilvy, Y&R, and Saatchi & Saatchi, are predicting a wave of green marketing campaigns as businesses compete on their environmental platforms. "Agencies say communicating green values is fast becoming an act of 'corporate hygiene' needed to retain competitiveness and standing with customers," said FT, adding: "Advertisers that make green claims for products and services however face unprecedented public scrutiny, particularly from bloggers and other web users."
Companies are finding their way through the thicket of scrutiny. Home Depot and Wal-Mart are back in the green-marketing game, as are smaller, niche players from TerraCycle to Terrapass. The lessons learned from these and scores of other firms are helping shape the future of green marketing -- and, in some cases, the future of the marketplace itself.
Clearly, companies need help, and there seems to be plenty of it. This fall, there are no fewer than four significant green marketing conferences -- up from zero just a year ago. In chronological order:
It remains to be seen whether there's sufficient demand for all these assemblages, but the sheer number of events alone speaks volumes about the direction in which the marketplace is headed.
Once again, we can smell change coming.