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February 04, 2007


Tom Konrad

I think part of it is because it's very difficult to agree what is "green" and what isn't we're all a little holier than thou (myself included.) Combine this with active greenwashing efforts of conventional companies, along with efforts to muddy the waters, and I think that the wannabe green consumer is confused, and in their confusion, they go back to the old.

I just read an article in the in the NYTimes about how the shift to palm based biodiesel ended up doing considerable environmental harm from the destruction of peat bogs and rainforest for palm plantations. Every article like that sows real, fact-based doubt that the "green" product we're buying is really good for the environment; it's extremely hard for consumers to weigh the trade-offs inherent in everything, and many interests who would lose out from a green shift have made efforts to muddy the waters further.

Until we have consistent labeling on products which includes simple to understand, possibly numeric quatification of a product's true environmental footprint, it will be difficult for consumers to differentiate the truly green from the greenwashed. And since I doubt that any two of us completely agree what would go into such a number, and how the different factors should be weighted (carbon footprint? environmental degradation? destruction of scenery? perservation of cultural sites?), we're a long way from that day. Being green needs to be easy before it will be broadly adopted.

Until it becomes easy to be green, I'm afraid we're stuck with Kermit and his song.

Fel Jones

Deluding ourselves about our virtue, rationalizing unhealthy habits and choices -- it seems these are hardwired human frailties that will not be easily overcome. It also strikes me that rabid consumerism has been deeply driven into the American psyche, largely by the very companies, many of them anyway, that are now 'turning green'. What will it take to counter so much inertia? A whole lot of cultural 're-education', perhaps. Increasing awareness of both the need for this re-education and the power of our collective choices would also help. Some leadership by example from people in power -- politicians, entertainers, sport figures, business leaders -- would also help.

Adam Brock

One promising option is environmental co-branding, along the lines of last year's Product Red. A high profile "meta-brand" of recycled, low-carbon, or non-toxic products would confer instant status on green products and raise the awareness of the need to buy green immensely.

Still, as Tom points out, schemes like these can't get very far without a set of standards for quantifying environmental harms, which is a game of almost infinite complexity. In a global economy, understanding the full impact of a product lifecycle is a monumental task. Slowly, though, the framework is falling into place - we're just about there with greenhouse gases. Tesco's plan to label each and every one of their products with a carbon footprint sets a fantastic precedent; it'll be interesting to learn about their methodology and see if the labels have any impact on customer decisions.

Ultimately, of course, green products must become so prevalent that they're the norm. Some of the most forward thinking companies are choosing to bypass green marketing altogether and simply make their products healthier for the environment as a matter of course. Staples, for instance, approaches sustainability as long-term business model rather than a marketing edge. They're slowly increasing the recycled content of their standard issue paper, and are experimenting with incorporating bioplastics and cotton byproducts into their office supplies.

The question for me, then, isn't so much whether a green marketing rennaissance is coming. Instead, it's this: "when will green products become so ubiquitous that marketing them as 'green' becomes moot?"


I just read your article on the wall street journal editorial about businesses profiteering from climate change. How funny--they appear desperate.

Then I clicked on the link to your blog. I had read that article from the Clean Edge e-mail I am grateful to get. When I got to your blog, I read the top article there regarding consumers not putting their money where their beliefs are, and not buying green. Just intuitively, I have a suggestion for why they are not. Sense the Bush administration (actually since the Reagan administration) has been in office, wealth in the US has had a great vacuum effect to the top 1% of our population. Currently, according to many political editorialists I listen to or read--not the least of which is Bill Moyers--the top 1% of our population controls more wealth than does the bottom 90%. Perhaps the reason consumers do not buy green is simply because it is out of there reach.

But, I do my best, especially in food choices, which increases my grocery bill by a good 20 - 30%, and I make that choice with a meager annual income of less than $25,000. My family is planning on purchasing a Bosch front loader washer with our tax return as well as an on demand water heater, because they will save us money eventually. Next time we will purchase a new and efficient refrigerator, then we plan to put a solar room on the South side of our house for passive solar heating, not to mention a nice room. All of those will save us money in the long run--which is something we need.

Thanks for your good work!


Recently a Bay Area entrepreneur got some publicity about her commitment to using organic cotton for her designer jean business. Of course since her designer jeans start at $200 a pop, that's hardly likely to "green" the middle class market for jeans.

I find it depressing to walk down the aisles at the Green Festival and notice that "green marketing" almost always means "boutique marketing" - aimed at folks with huge disposable income, as Danna mentions above.

I find it equally depressing to see Bay Area online green businesses selling organic wool baby blankets for $125 apiece. This isn't a failure of demand, it's a lack of commitment to drive down prices in order to reach mass markets. Our best marketeers instead are spending their energy selling to the richest among us.

We all love to hate WalMart, but at least their first steps at greening their product line are aimed where it will do the most good in terms of transforming the economy.

Until then, we should all do what Danna does, which is to save our green purchase money for big ticket durable items that have a long lasting effect.

Mike Kilroy

A commitment to green has to be a lot deeper than a product choice. It has to be seen as a true moral choice. And nobody, especially Americans it seems, wants to go down that less than comforting road.

Americans haven't been asked to sacrifice since WWII. And we're not really talking huge sacrifices here -- toilet paper from old-growth forest or from farms -- but it's enough to push the all-too-comfortable American consumer the other way.

I truly believe green starts in the heart and soul. Sounds corny, but it does. So until our religious faiths are making green the ONLY ethical choice, commitment to green will always be a mile wide and an inch thick.

robert veach

Excellent article Joel!
I have been talking to anyone I meet about the advantages of buying green products and most people do not have the time or energy to educate themselves about products or services that meet this criteria. I have also been promoting a new company that will make it VERY EASY FOR ANYONE TO GO GREEN AND REALLY (I MEAN REALLY)EFFECT THE ENVIRONMENT!! TAKE A LONG LOOK AT THIS:
Robert Veach

Chuck Hornbrook

I think the reasons why are well captured:

1) Not a clear understanding of what is damaging the planet. I’d be amazed how many people know that cement manufacturing is the #3 emitter of CO2 or the GHG impact of methane emissions from livestock. Gore's film is the first step in mainstreaming this message and frankly Wal-Marts actions will impact more people than the movie. Simple and actionable.
2) Insufficient information on green products and the life cycle costs of these. We all remember the disposable diaper vs cloth diaper debate.
3) Price points matter and for an organic sweater to sell to the masses it needs to be close to the same price as the inorganic.

If we are going to make a change, people who live in the interior of the US need to care and we need to frame with language that will make them care (Lakoff anyone?). The “Economist” had a great graph showing energy use per capita of California, Red states and Blue states. California has been flat, Blue states increasing but lower than the Red states. We need it to make sense and have people emotionally care that they do not need to drive a suburban when they live in Texas and that it is OK to lower your thermostat. Like the Kermit the Frog song, conservation and being green for people over a certain age recall one President who told us to wear a sweater, and he was in the office for one term (although he did many great things while in and afterwards).

Jacquelyn Ottman

Empirical evidence shows that green products are in fact growing not just in the traditional green niche, but among the mainstream. By way of a few examples, sales of organic produce have increased 20 percent annually since 1990, five times faster than the conventional food market, spurring the growth of specialty retailers such as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and now Wal-Mart, too. EPA's Energy Star label can be found on 40 different types of products; retailers such as Lowe's, and Home Depot with its ECO-Options initiative, are selling energy efficient appliances, lighting, electronics and office products and tout their use of this label which is recognized by at least 40% of consumers. "Shade grown" coffees are available at Starbucks, and by last count, organic baby food was expected to represent 12 percent market share. Let's not forget Toyota's Prius. This all suggests that many marketers—too many to count—have figured out how to sell green products to consumers, and consumers are responding to their messages whether led by "green" claims or more effectively, primary product benefits (with green often as a value-add) which green features can often support in a superior way e.g., P&G's Tide Coldwater, the impetus for which came from an LCA which found that the chief environmental impacts occurred during the "use" stage when water is heated. One logical conclusion from all of this is that quantitative research such as that conducted by Mintel needs to reconsider how it measures consumer attitudes and behavior towards green products. Note: More information about this can be found in Green Marketing Myopia, an article I co-wrote with Ed Stafford and Cathy Hartman of Utah State, posted on my website.

Marc Gunther

Very provocative article, Joel, and I first must plead guilty to "recycling" the Kermit line a few times!

One thought: Rather than try to persuade people to "buy green" - which is an oxymoron, in a way -- perhaps environmentalists should try to persuade us to buy less. This is a risky position for greens to take because it runs counter to what Tom Konrad calls "rapid consumerism." And no one wants to come across as a scold. About the only group I know that preaches this message is the Center for the New American Dream. But it's an appealing message, when positioned properly. (Their slogan is "More Fun, Less Stuff.")It's not easily done, but why not try to persuade people that happiness comes from pursuing those things that are abundant (family, friendship, community) rather than those which are scarce (big houses, big cars, home entertainment systems, etc).

Susie Hewson

As someone who, for the past 17 years, has produced and marketed, to use this season's terminology "Green" feminine hygiene products for women, I understand the difficulties of getting the ecological message across to consumers who are battered every day by the noise of sleek aspirational lifestyle advertising. I believe that within all of us, there is a basic urge to protect our environment but for most, there has been a huge vacuum of information about what it is that we do and buy that is causing us to bring about climate change that will make this planet in the not too distant future, hostile for mankind. Recent climate disasters have focussed minds, and people want to be able to make a difference in whatever way they believe that they can. 60 years ago in war torn Europe, and even today in countries ravaged by war, populations focus on achieving their basic needs in order to survive. Aspirational advertising is therefore crass and irrelevant. The danger now is that those industries and corporations that have largely contributed to turning Planet Earth into a toxic waste dump will now use "Green Marketing" to pacify frightened populations into accepting small and ineffective modifications and thereby lead to a blending of the green spectrum from truly environmentally friendly to a bit of a cosmetic change. Looking at the whole environmental picture can be terrifying, looking at too small a section can be ineffective, but key to making the best choices is having truth in labelling, standards to measure the lifecycle of a product so products can be compared for the footprint that they make, but most of all, cynicism needs to be replaced with action. It is time to stop saying "I will make changes if" and start saying "I am making changes". Using the price tag as a barrier to "going Green" is just cynicism. After all, as the ice caps continue to melt, climate catastrophes cause massive populations to migrate away from the coasts and flood plains, crops fail and desserts encroach on once fertile plains, and we realise that we have created the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse for ourselves, making excuses for reasons not to choose a low impact way of living is sociopathic


Did anyone ever think of the fact that being normal doesn't need an explanation...
Green is normal folks. Think about it.
What is there, certainly in consumers eyes, to explain on normal green...
By linking the green story to the product, you bring people's mind into thinking and not handling...!!
There is no real time for thinking in the shop if you see a product for the 1st time.
So the consequence is a rejection.
Not based on absence of good will, but caused by the rational considerations of buying a (green)product.

Joel Baral

It is a marketing and clarity problem. Perhaps as we start having some fun in this world, and stop the dread....then it will start working....also, it needs to be an overall vision...ie, what is the world of a 100% green life(style) this needs to be visualized. Not just saving ourselves from disaster but a life to work toward/see as a positive posibility and reality, and we have to create products, and connections that are easy to understand. I thought about starting with CONSCIOUS GREEN COMMITTMENTS that people can sign up for....changing their 401K investments to sustainable companies, buying a hybrid/public transaportation once a week, and the committments keep advancing as you go...toward a society that greening means not just replacing existing products with green products, but connecting socially with the environment, farmers, manufactures, laborers - Going green as a consumer should mean more than consuming it should be connecting...


I disagree with your take that most consumers aren't willing to spend the time to learn the issues. A large part of the problem is that the issue is overwhelming and complicated. And we're not doing it any favors.

Most people want to make the right decision, but there is no consistent voice speaking for the green crowd (as Bono does as the voice for Africa). Instead, there are thousands of well meaning people and organizations that squabble over what the MOST important issues and actions are. Or attacking corporate 'green-marketing' campaigns as disingenuous.

We're all allowing perfect to be the enemy of good. If we (environmentalists) weren't so concerned about one-upping anothers argument and trying to out-green each other we'd be much farther along. People are afraid of making the wrong decision and getting chastized for it by all of us. It's much easier to block it out until we figure out what the hell we're talking about.

We're not going to solve the problem tomorrow. Let's keep the long road in mind and start applauding the baby steps. Every journey starts with the first step after all.

Mike Frew

It's not only marketers who need to improve communications on this one, it's retailers themselves. Marketers only get the message out for those stores that employ them. The big guys; department stores and the like.

The little guy (who we'd all like to see with a lions share of the retail market) typically does not have a marketing budget. So the little guy needs to be clever with what s/he has. There IS as large market to be tapped - its a massive incentive for retailers to spend some time thinking about it.

I've been fleshing this out in the New Zealand context. Some of my thoughts are at



In my experience people have so many things that they have to think about on a daily basis, that they feel helpless to do anything about the 'big' issue of the environment. They don't understand the connection between the plastic wrapped, chemically infused food item that they buy and the fact that their kids have asthma. They can 'fix' the asthma with an inhaler, but the other things are beyond their control. So, while they may (here in Australia, water is the big issue), follow water restrictions, they don't connect that with the fact that their meat consumption is degrading their water catchment areas. It's all too hard for them. I think it's our job as people who understand these connections, to make it easy for people to buy green. As others have suggested make green the 'norm', not something that needs to be explained to people.


You describe the classic Geoffrey Moore "Crossing the Chasm" problem. We have Early Adopters already in the bag, and extolling Green's virtues. But the Early Mainstream is still awaiting a compelling reason to join up. The symptoms of non-adoption suggest that a complete whole solution does not yet exist for mainstream wishing to adopt a particular green practice. Sounds like the classic solutions need to be adopted - hint: they're not the things that landed the Early Adopters.

On a side note, let me say that the general level of societal discussion on Green issues is much higher now than I've ever heard it, your comment about the noise sounding the same for the last 20years notwithstanding. So I'm actually quite optimistic this time.

Melissa Brandao

Wow, what a compelling discourse, I thank you all for insight into green marketing! From a marketeer and green consumer products standpoint, I think that "green" products in the hearts and minds of many consumers have unfortunately been equated with sacrafice and "frumpy". I think green marketing will always be for the elite--because it's not a principle that gives consumers a feeling of control. In fact, it reminds them that the earth is falling apart and its all their fault--there's resistance to it--desire to deny they're to blame. "Oh, well if Twinkies still exist it can be all that bad..."

After all we are a nation of consumers that can select from 15+ different kinds of laundry soap and can get flavored coffee from any gas mart.

For "green" products to really matter I believe they simply have to be better products. Better, not just to save the environment but better for the consumer. Method Soap is one of my favorite examples, they're not just green they're chic and stylish. In fact it was only long after I bought some of their hand soap that I was pleasantly surprised that they were so eco-friendly. Make better products market them because they're better and not because they're simply green.


My family mostly buys mostly organic food. I recycle and pass things along to the point of driving my hubby crazy as it stockpiles until I can unload our junk properly.

When we can't even get most of our communities to spend $15.00 to rent the recycling bins to recycle their newspaper, glass and plastic--we have a problem. Recycling isn't as common as it should be. On my street, I am one of 3 houses among perhaps 20 houses that bothers to recycle. I've been the rarity in every neighborhood that I have lived since recycling programs were introduced.

Many states are leading the way and offering energy and tax rebates, but most don't. Making the big changes that many of us would like to do is expensive. I feel that until the government gets more involved across the board, green is going to be something that those that are interested will have to search out on the internet.

As for the green discussion, it's not easy. We can all make small changes, but we need the majority to change to really start to make the difference that is needed.

Corey K. Tournet

I see several reasons for this. One is that the environmental movement also has a "sky is falling" approach so people tend to dismiss them after a while. Another thing is that people are so busy and distracted, their is a lot of social pressure to be busy all the time. Also, there is far too much finger pointing at the big companies. Instead of complaining that the automakers won't make an electric car, why not start your own company and make them?

I do find it somewhat upsetting when people can be good quality eco-friendly products that work just as well as the brand names (i.e. laundry detergent) right in the supermarket, and they still don't bother. That leads me to believe a lot of people don't think the environment is an issue at all.

Corey K. Tournet

Also, we have to focus a lot more on the product benefits and keep the cost down. There is no reason why eco-friendly has to mean more expensive all the time. I also don't see asking people to go out less, travel less, buy less, etc. working too well, people want to have fun and enjoy their lives.

To me overdevelopment is the biggest issue, even bigger than pollution. Global warming seems like the biggest one, but I am quite optimistic with all the emerging green technologies, like electric bikes, cars, etc. we'll figure it out.

Chris Wright

I wonder whether "green products" need to make a fundamental brand claim that stakes firmer ground against more traditional product lines.

Very generally in my experience, green products stake out less immediate claims to personal benefit: namely, save the planet, rather than whiter whites for a detergent. This doesn't mean the planet is NOT important; it only means that purchasing decisions and brand loyalty are likely wrapped around experienced functional benefit; And that is in its most basic form, "I need to wash my shirts and I like detergent that smells like lemon."

In my view, this is how green products can and should construct their brands. There should be no reason why green products can't claim better, faster and cleaner - and then say oh by the way we're green as a closer for a sale.

Better products displace traditional products all the time. The same can be done for green ones. But it may be an issue of perhaps - because I don't the answer - of applying a disciplined brand approach to marketing green products to consumers and businesses.

I don't get the impression that green products have the marketing backbone of say the technology sector, or even consumer goods. Clearly, there are exceptions, but they remain few, at least to my eye.

Maureen O'Connor

I think it isn't easy being green (and I use this phrase for the sake of short-hand) -- primarily because it's hard for people "to change." Plain and simple. Whether heads of state, or heads of households -- most folks favor a "tried and true" approach to things. "Change" inherently involves a certain degree of risk, and "additional thinking/consideration." Who has time for that? That being said, with tongue in cheek, I do feel optimistic about things; I do believe the "consumer tide" is turning. But at the moment, the tide is merely an undercurrent.

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