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October 21, 2007


Naomi Bloch

Why not start off with personal conservation efforts... instead of more *buying*? Would that not be the first, easiest and best place to impliment a true greening of America and Japan, et al?

Besides, the economy for most of the citizens in the world is not the buzzing success story it is for the upper 2% of the world's wealthiest citizens. So again, *buying* more stuff, whether greener, or not, is simply not as easy for many consumers as some companies might imagine.

Just my two cents... for free! ;-)

Mark McElroy


I also attended a conference recently on business sustainability (Sustainable Brands 2007, in New Orleans) and have some reinforcing observations to offer. In particular, you talked about producers who say that consumers "are deeply concerned about the environment, but who seem less than willing to channel that concern into purchases of greener products and services." As if we are supposed to feel sorry for the producers, the helpless and hapless victims they are.

With due respect, producers are consumers, too. What producers do is not excused by what their customers ask of them. This idea of producer immunity by virtue of consumer sovereignty needs to be recognized for what it is -- dead on arrival. Please stop caving into it, and pandering to the rest of us as if we do, too



Joel Makower

Wow, Mark. Strong words. Pandering? Please point out how my description of companies' struggles to push greener products into the market in spite of consumer resistance is "caving" (to what?) and "pandering" (to whom?).

Mark McElroy


I don't mean to accuse you of being knowingly complicit in terms of what the effect of what you are doing is, but think about it. This image of companies begging governments to regulate them is really too much. How about they just regulate themselves? You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't feel too sorry for them because of the fact that they fail to do so (or that they enlist journalists' apparent sympathy in the same cause). Or that they blame their customers' failure to buy 'green', or what have you. This is what I meant by "caving".

As for "pandering", it is a reference to the tendency of people in consumer societies to adopt the producer's point of view, and for the press (sustainability pundits, etc.) to speak to us all as if we necessarily take the sympathetic position I saw in your words. I mean really, Joel, you have to admit the, "Gee, we'd really like to be sustainable if only our customers and the governments we report to would compel us to do so" argument is weak.

Joel, you are not willingly pandering to such views, I know. I have nothing but the deepest respect for you. Your intentions are genuine, I know that. But hear what I have to say. I think you -- all of us -- have been duped by the producer/consumer worldview, according to which open-ended consumption reigns supreme, and producers are indemnified by it. Instead, we should hold producers, not just consumers, accountable for what they do and can do, too. They are not innocent bystanders. They are not merely victims of their customers' decisions, as if they have no power to act themselves. The "consumer as sole source of authority" view is the one I say is dead on arrival, and I only want (and suggest) you to stop unknowingly reinforcing. Give some attention to the other side of the argument. Stop tacitly reinforcing the view that implicitly blames end-user consumers for what actually happens throughout the entire supply chain, and not just at the end of it



Joel Makower

Mark, I appreciate your respect for my work, but it's clear you haven't been following it very closely.

My past twenty years have been spent helping companies reduce their impacts and find ways to transform reactive thinking about environmental issues into ways to create business value -- new and innovative products that significantly reduce impacts, whether in their manufacturing, use, or disposal. Granted, the transformation of the marketplace has been much, much slower than any of us would like, and that's frustrating, but it's not because companies are being given a free ride and consumers are all to blame.

Having said that, the reality is that the marketplace is a two-way conversation between companies and their customers, whether B-to-B or B-to-C. To state unequivocally that companies should change what they do and how they do it regardless of what their customers want or need is naïve, to say the least.

Suffice to say, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Francesca Johnson

Hope you don't mind if I step in between you two guys for a minute. Yes, it is frustrating that consumers are slow to act on their professed concern for the environment. And, yes, producers are showing impatience with the slow adoption of their green alternatives, especially in these days of "pandering" to shareholders. But isn't this mostly an issue of timing? Many years ago I did the first concept testing on ATMs for a major bank. The consumers couldn't have been more negative, raising all kinds of concerns. But the bank persisted, trusting that the consumers would eventually catch on and the early adopters would lead the way for the rest of the market. The same thing happened with microwave ovens. Sometimes new ideas just take time. Whenever the producer can see past the initial consumer fears and be willing to take a big risk in exchange for a big future payoff, things have a way of working out. I predict that in ten years solar roofs will be the new granite and consumers will have finally caught on to eco-friendly products that also dovetail with their need for affordability and practicality.

Mark McElroy


I'll happily defer to your account of what you have been doing for the past twenty years, because you're right, I haven't been following it closely, or even at all. Nonetheless, I have been following closely what you've said in the past twenty days or so, and my comments in response stand, accordingly.

Moreover, I agree with you that to "state unequivocally that companies should change what they do and how they do it regardless of what their customers want or need is naïve, to say the least." On the other hand, neither of us made such a statement, per se, so I'm not sure why you brought it up.

What I said was that companies, as consumers themselves, are accountable for their impacts; and that their responsibility for their impacts cannot be overlooked simply because of what their customers ask or expect of them. If you really agreed with this, you, like me, would be demanding that producers measure and report the sustainability of their operations in meaningful ways. I've asked you about this in the past, and it's clear to me that you have taken a different point of view, so I'm at least aware of that part of your 20-year history.

Last, the B-to-B versus B-to-C comment you made seems to reveal a perspective on market dynamics that either ignores and/or sanctions the premise of ever-increasing energy and material throughputs in the economy (aka, growth). You seem to want to live with that premise and contend with its consequences, whereas I want to challenge it. If that makes me naive, then call me naive. But to gratuitously label me is not to critique my argument.



ken langdon

Companies cannot go out on a limb to promote geen products that often cost more because the bulk of the customers (me included) will most likley not purchase same. The same is true with govt legislation in many areas not only "green" but many others such as safety ,gun control etc. The politions won't crawl on that limb either so we have a conudrum. We do have too much freedom the tyrany of the consumer.

Tom Cosgrove

Many good points are being made here and I agree with most of them. However being impatient by nature, I too am frustrated that more consumers aren't buying into reducing their carbon footprint with real world actions. What's missing? Motivation and incentive plus time. Going green is the new organics which was the new recycling. Do you know anyone who doesnt recycle something or buy some organic product? I don't. So it will take time, another two years at least, before we see more of a mass adoption, even if the starting point is swapping out 5 CFLs for 5 incandescents for every household in the US.

The bigger deal is motivation and incentives. Tax deductions and rebates aren't enough on their own since the ROI for a bybird or solar purchase doesn't wash for the modern savvy consumer. The capital expense is too high recent studies claim. However getting a non-gov't 3rd party involved to subsidize a portion of the clean energy purchase would jump start this revolution. Imagine if HP gave each employee (or the first 1000 to sign up) a $5000 subsidy to purchase clean energy from a menu of options: bybrid/electric car, photo-voltaic/thermal system or home energy efficency audit and remediation. The employee is suddenly motivated to action and has the financial incentive to pull the trigger, faster. Consumers will spend $50,000 on a kitchen remodel or $5,000 on an HD TV without blinking an eye, yet hesitate to go green due to "cost". My point is that we all need to start thinking in a very creative manner to find novel ways to make going green a no-brainer. Until then we're up against the ROI wall and that business model won't fly. Until the solar etc price comes down dramatically, gas prices double, or the icebergs start floating into San Francisco Bay, the current adoption rate won't change much for years. Time to stop complaining about the obvious problems and get cracking on the harder to find solution. Good luck!


Your post comparing the state of sustainability and eco-awareness between Japan and America is quite eye opening. Like you, I would have believed the Japanese had a stronger grip on environmental practices. I especially agree with the statement that “[Japan’s] biggest obstacle is indifference.” This indifference extends outside of Japan to America, Asia, and most countries. Eco-threats are relatively new to the public, and so it is difficult to radically change people’s attitudes towards the issue. Despite this “mainstreaming of green”, environmental issues need to advance past being simply the next new ‘fad’, and properly engrain themselves into the mindset of the general public. To do this, marketers and the media need to be united in their message. If some businesses are explaining why it is important to go green and the steps they are taking to achieve sustainability, while others are simply using ‘green’ as an excuse to increase their brand value, the masses will receive only mixed messages that ultimately end up being disregarded as more marketing trash. Only when the media can produce a unified message clarify the importance of environmental responsibility, can the masses put their money where their mouths are and start making greener purchasing decisions, and subsequently only then will going green make business sense in every field.

Martin Cole

I am not sure if we really should not focus more on the moral issues facing our world today - high incidence of poverty even in the developed world, violence and corruption etc. If these are taken care of, peolpe will be less inclined towards the activities that bring about the environmental issues which are still not fully proven by science

Will O'Neill

I was quite surprised when I read this article detailing the similarities between Japan and the United States with regards to "going green." Maybe it is my cynical nature, but I thought US citizens had the largest disconnect between their sustainability concerns and their purchasing habits. It seems that Japanese consumers are just as confusing and I am inclined to agree with Ken that the disconnect arises due to lack of real motivation. It is not that people don't recognize the problem(s), it's that they have no personal reason to actually do something about it.

On a different note, something that struck me as interesting was Japanese businesses' thoughts on government responsibility. Like many of their American counterparts, it seems like they want to rely on their government to set rules and regulations and then they will 'follow their lead.' Once again, I think the key is to motivate the consumer and then the business will follow. Government is to slow and has too many conflicting interests to effectively address the sustainability issues we are faced with.

Jules Peck

From what I have seen of the evidence of a complete lack of decoupling between throughput and economic growth the real trick will be when we manage to shift ourselves out of thinking and acting like consumers and more as citizens. 'Green growth'and 'green consumption' seem oxymorons unless contextualised within the need to shift to a steady-state wellbeing economy.
How long until we see a leading company step out of line and start to question relative-materialism and its effect on the wellbeing of people and planet I wonder?

Controls on advertising have to be the most obvious way to make marketing and capitalism more responsbile and fit for the overfull world we have created.

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