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July 26, 2009



I spent a lot of time studying "green consumers" and "green products" - and I kept coming back to the same conclusion - it really is an "all things considered equal, most consumers will make the environmental choice" - which means the product (or service) needs to be perfectly fungible with whatever it is designed to replace - a quick look at your list above and I think it's easy to see that that's going to be an uphill battle...

maybe marketers and product development departments need to re-think how problems can be solved in new ways - new approaches, new product suites, new platforms, instead of trying to compete with established products that are made at prices that many green products won't be able to touch...

just my two cents... great post!

Jacquelyn Ottman

Yes, it's unfortunate that many people still have the misperception (left over from the 70s) that green products don't work as well, but Prius, GreenWorks, Method, and organic produce—bought often because it tastes better, are gradually dispelling the myth. Also,to build the market for green products, we need to educate the green marketers about how to highlight their product benefits (not just environmental benefits)and do other things like reassure on product performance (if even necessary). It's like I say, "The power of green (now) lies in Marketers Hands" http://www.greenmarketing.com/index.php/articles/complete/power-of-green/
Jacquelyn Ottman

Georjean Adams

If life cycle thinking and product stewardship are integral practices for a company, green will be naturally incorporated into its product development work. Thriving companies rely on their employees' passions and pride for what they do best to create innovative new products. It doesn't matter what their markets are - MP3s, office buildings, coatings, medical devices, toys, lodging, etc.

Instructions to product developers to "go make me a green product" for the sake of playing the green marketing game are going to generate lame efforts. Asking product developers to make the best product they can and to make sure they use green principles doing it will produce winners.

"Green" should be just another attribute that helps products attain best of class status.

Dan Harvey

I don't think for most of the mainstream 'green' necessarily equals 'worse', but I absolutely agree that 'green' on its own isn't a benefit - the mainstream are simply indifferent to it.

When a product or service has been developed to be a green version of an existing product or service, some extra benefit above and beyond 'green' must be added if it is to appeal to the mainstream.

As per the attributes in your list, 'green' should feel like a natural part or extension of this benefit.


So, you are saying being green is not better because it's more expensive? That's the jist I got from reading your article. Cost is one thing about being better (which is a broad term) but there are so many other benefits to green products that I would consider them "better" than their mainstream counterparts.

When it comes to the mainstream audience, cost is one of the bigger contributors to people not buying green (not as effective being the other big contributor). So you're right with that statement.

Peter T. Knight

Agree with Georjean. We need to escape our green ghetto point of view and see products (and services) for what they are, not for their color. The market is beginning to include green as an essential ingredient in good products. Improved models will be better for a range of reasons - including their social and environmental performance, but not excluding all the other tempting bits we love so much (sweeter, faster, sexier…).

Peter T. Knight
Context America, Inc

Ann Monroe

The truth is not all green products ARE as "good" - ie perform as well - either as promised or as the non-green ones they replace. CFLs don't always last nearly as long as advertised. Compostable trash bags tear easily. I still buy CFLs; I don't still buy compostable trash bags because a trash bag that rips is utterly useless no matter how green. If I weren't so committed, one non-performing green product could turn me off green forever. Joel is right. I think Georjean is maybe pushing it a bit too far - for many, "as good as" is good enough - but I agree, "better than" is even better, and "not as good as" will get nowhere.

Chaz Miller

The funny thing is that people constantly buy "green" products and have no idea what they are buying. Aluminum cans and glass bottles and steel products all have high levels of recycled content; newspapers, corrugated boxes and other paper products are full of recycled fiber. People buy these products because they are dependable and state-of-the-art. Most people have little or no clue how "green" they are. Perhaps the big problem with buying "green" is with new products that may cost more than people want to pay or that are not as good a product as the "brown" one.

Ed Reid


Green does seem at times to be a moving target, hopefully towards progress, with innovations in and expectations about products and services bringing about change.

Croft Elsaesser, President American Clay Enterprises

When looking at the building of homes in the US, there is more at play than just the “market equivalent”. There is a social factor that says bigger is better. Americans view their home as a status symbol , and that status is bigger, not greener. In that case which is better? (as stated, it depends on your "better" list) Both may have the
same initial price tag. Unless this view is changed, there will never be an opportunity to build sustainable homes, and niche will remain the avanue to Green.

Jim Leemann

As long as green products cost more and deliver less or no more than the equivalent benefit to the product's non-green counterpart, people will be driven by the value they receive from their dollar. People buy green because it makes them feel good. Most people are clueless when it comes to knowing any details of how their so called green product was manufactured. If they truly understood the minimal return value for their purchase, they would probably stop buying green. Of course, marketers will never let this knowledge be known, because it would be the end of their green hoax.

R. Williams

Green should be better, not just different or perceived to be better. Documentation and verification of meaningful improvements (decreased environmental footprint, less resource use, etc.) can be tough to develop. There are many claims based on varied premises, but few hard data - - and anyone who has conducted a full LCA extending way back into the supply chain understands that these are not simple or cheap to conduct.

Setting the above challenges aside, there are many points of analysis that can be used to evaluate green. I like to think of them within 2 frames of reference: (1) the process used to make the product and (2) the product itself.

In terms of a green process, and depending on the nature of the final product, there are many ways to achieve meaningful green: using less quantity of solvent, using solvents (like water) with a lower toxicity profile, reducing the number of reaction steps through improved process chemistry (chemistry continues to evolve as a science), fewer and/or more benign regents, more effective product cleanup (less waste) of the product, less material waste in manufacturing the final product, using raw materials that require less transport, less intensive reaction conditions (temperature, etc.). The list goes on and there are certainly many creative ways for process chemists and engineers to approach greener chemical or manufacturing processes.

In terms of the product itself, there may be opportunities to reduce footprint/resource use by producing a product that can, for example, biodegrade post consumer use (provided it ends up in an environment conducive to biodegradation), have less toxicity (this is driven by stereochemistry and the potential for exposure to receptors), be recyclable or feed into cradle-to-cradle opportunities, have a longer lifespan (remember when 100,000 miles on a car was a sure sign of impending disaster??), etc.

Above are just some quick thoughts – hope they are useful.


I agree with the train of thought that green should be a characteristic of good products, not a selling benefit all by itself. Viewing it in its own light is not good enough because it doesn't confer a direct, actual benefit. So start with quality and build in green.

Mike Brown

Points well made, Joel. A classic sales approach is to talk about features and benefits; most consumers don't care about features, but do respond to benefits. Designing "better" products usually means figuring out how to offer novel benefits or for existing products, more of the same benefits that people already care about. Offering "green" features that aren't perceived as benefits usually doesn't make a product "better" in the eyes of many consumers. Offering "green" benefits that speak to what the consumer gets out of the "green" attribute may actually make something "better," at least as perceived by the consumer. For example, think about the life cycle issues of energy use in transportation and consumer use. Reducing the weight of the packaging to reduce shipping energy is a feature that most consumers won't care about; reducing energy consumption when the consumer uses the product is a benefit and arguably makes the product "better."

Eric Crawford

Joel, great comments as usual. I struggle with the proposition that green products have to be measured by old standards. Isn't this old way of thinking just keeping us boxed in? What is wrong with a product that is green for green sake? Why not push the idea that green is good enough on its own merit? Of course, a green product can be "just as good" and not necessarily "better." That should be good enough for us. We need to challenge the conventional wisdom of our current consumption model and value equation. Again, great comments….

Eric Crawford
Greenman Alliance LLC

Ray Hartjen

So important to equate "green" with "better" to capture the attention and imagination of consumers. While a small fraction of the market will spend a premium on "green," it's far from the mainstream. If that wasn't true, we wouldn't need green initiatives, how would we? When "green" can mean less expensive, more convenient, easier-to-use, etc., it will hit the mark. The companies and brands that can do it first will have an immense advantage.

Great post, Joel - nicely done.


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Melissa Schweisguth

'Green' as a specific term/philosophy fundamentally started as an environmental concept, not covering a broader social, environmental and economic framework. It is one color in the rainbow of good business practices.

Marketers, seeking to capture emerging trends, have simply tried to extend this blanket to consumer concerns like equitable trade/labor, local sourcing, good workplace, supporting communities, etc... Folks like Adam Werbach would tell us this is Blue, not green (or greenwashing if it isn't true in practice). The blanket really wasn't made to cover such a big area, so yes, it leaves many things in the cold.

Organizations like Co-op/Green America have likewise used the term to describe what would more appropriately be called social responsibility or some similar term.

Consumers are also clearly confused as to what "green" means. The Hartmann group's seminal sustainability work shows that consumers define fair trade, fair workplace and the like as green practices.

Marketers and non-profits simply to be overselling the term, and consumers are accordingly expecting more...and bound to get less than this.

In truth, many things billed as "green" aren't even comprehensive models of better environmental practices. Many companies have jumped on the "going green" PR wagon standing solely on limited (though critical) efforts such as addressing climate change, offering a few energy-efficient products and the like, while failing to address other environmental issues whether that be water use, solid waste, etc. Many companies are also doing only what saves or makes money, not coming close to addressing their real eco-impact and driving the level of change needed.

On a tangential point, "cheaper" as an expectation is a challenging one for some sectors, if we are to define cost solely by what the consumer pays at the register, gas pump, etc. Take food/ag. Non-organic ag (what some call "conventional," though organic far predates the use of petro-based inputs, GMOs, hormones, etc) is highly subsidized by government through various programs so consumers don't pay the true cost at the store. We pay it through taxes, polluted water, health issues related to agro-chemical ingestion/contact, etc. Organic is not subsidized as such, so consumers are asked to pay the full cost. A similar case can be made for non-renewable vs renewable energy sources, though financial supports for the latter are finally expanding. Perhaps if we looked @ full cost accounting greener would be cheaper.

Melissa Schweisguth
Full Circle Enterprise Solutions


The problem with the green movement, in my opinion, is that it is a new spin on an old approach to consumerism. When curtailment of our consumption and lifestyle changes are what we most need to accomplish the “ends” of the green movement, the green movement falls short of that.

To me, and this may be too harsh, the green movement is just another opportunity to manipulate consumers with a new consumption flavor. The discussion on “better,” or the general lack thereof, seems to support that this is in fact how producers are looking at it. I.e. if we don’t get on this wagon, we miss out on opportunities to sell.

Case and point from:


"Nissan has been criticized for being slow to enter the green market -- they have only one hybrid vehicle in their fleet. Impressions to the contrary, Nissan has been hard at work to leapfrog 'transitional' powertrain solutions like gas-electric hybrids in favor of genuine zero-emissions vehicles."

How about that: “genuine zero emissions vehicles?" I guess they did not factor in the coal and gas burning plants with energy conversion efficiencies of way less than 100% and then the electric power losses along the way (fossil fuel to electricity to mechanical conversion vs. fossil fuel to mechanical conversion). Sad misinformation. The carbon footprint of these things will always be greater than any well designed similarly sized gasoline or diesel vehicle (not to mention the havoc on the environment the batteries are at the end of their life cycle. Of course green energy to the rescue(or not, which I touch a little later).

This is so manipulative.

Going unrealistically idealistic, if producers really cared, they would say “you really don’t need our product (or any product like it, green or otherwise) and here is why …” with options for curtailed living.

Problem goes right to the top. We have been in, and I think many want to return us to, an ever increasingly frenetic consumerism driven growth economy so we can get back to comfortable living. The self absorption of the average individual pointed out in the quote "I'll admit this is a very selfish view of the world …” and the forces that have and continue to train people to meet their real, perceived and strategically marketed needs in material consumerism make that trend likely for a while longer.

That however is unsustainable. The question is which generation finally has to face that fact and learn to live curtailed lifestyles (when they have no choice anymore).

Of course, one can always hold out for the miracle solution for green energy or whatever that is coming in the future to save the day (I am not a pessimist, rather a realist). You will interestingly note some “expert” is quoted in the media about the future along these lines fairly regularly. Again, it feeds “consume on baby, we have you covered.” Would be nice, but a serious review of the technologies involved shows they are basically old, well established, and incrementally improving at a rate that will never provide the answer (solar included). Of course, again the miracle breakthrough is coming.

Would prefer some real honesty about our real issues as a planet and successful curtailment vs. successful consumerism.

mark zimzak

The most poigniant (sp) part of the article (in my humble opinion):
"I'll admit this is a very selfish view of the world. It assumes that most people, when making purchase decisions, don't think much beyond their own immediate needs, or those of their family. And while there are exceptions to that (and I'm sure that you, dear reader, are among those who always consider the greater good), the vast majority of consumers focus primarily on their immediate needs and interests. Which is why most green products remain niche products, and likely always will."
My thoughts: Maybe we should be buying less... instead of buying green products. Albeit ....a very difficult endeavor when we have consumeristic habits generations in the making. Maybe there is a way to help our children escape the consumption drug???

jessica England

perhaps if green businesses wanted to sell as much as their non-green counterparts, they should employ the same tactics into their promotions.
If there is one thing that surveys show best, it is that people have no idea why they do the things they do. For no good rhyme or reason, people will constantly endure abuse in the form of price gouging, false advertising, and even suffering from exposure to harmful ingredients found in the products themselves. All this, just to turn right back around and do it all over again! Call it name recognition if you want but I truthfully feel that the typical American is just a glutton for punishment.
So, green businesses should lie, price gouge, and poison their prospective consumer base of clientele into a relationship that can grow and last for years and years.

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