Green marketing — the reality

The carbon footprint as it is understood by pe...
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I’m fascinated by the idea and practice of “green marketing”. What this looks like currently is labeling on products that tell you that the carbon footprint is lower (Than what? Than it used to be? Is that OK, or just better?), the food is organic (too bad there is no agreed standards about what “organic” means, but I doubt that most consumers know that), or some other “eco” or “green” labeling. When you boil it right down, all that these labels are really telling you is that: “…less damage was probably done in producing and bringing this product to market than might otherwise have been done under some other way of operating, possibly the way we used to operate.” Not really much of a ringing endorsement for “best practices” in communicating real, actionable information to consumers. (I’ve written some other thoughts about labeling here…)

Looking beyond confusing labeling antics, let’s look at the broader notion of “green marketing”, by examining a  Green Travel Agency. What this means in practical terms is that they offer to sell carbon offsets to their clients who can pay this extra amount to offset the standard carbon footprint of their actual flight. The longer the flight, the more offsets one purchases. The Travel Agency themselves might also strive to be “carbon neutral” and so purchase offsets to offset the actual business.

I guess all of this is better than doing nothing, however here is what I think a “green travel agency” (GTA) would really operate like:

Client: I wish to purchase a flight to New York for next Tuesday.

GTA: Why? Why do you need to travel?

Client: It’s none of your business.

GTA: Can’t you do your business by telephone, or videoconference? Isn’t there someone there that can do what you need to do? Why don’t you stay around here and not travel — find another way to get your work done…. what about that?

And so on… the above exchange is not very likely, if I’m in the business of selling airline tickets and related services. So in reality, a Green Travel Agent is more properly termed a “telephone company”.

Lets look at the example of a “green retailer”. Today they are showing off their green credentials by reducing water and energy usage in their big-box stores, pushing suppliers for less packaging, redesigning their transport fleets for more efficient fuel use, and so forth. What would a customer exchange look like for a real “green retailer” (GR)?

Greeter, welcoming Customer: Good morning, how can I help you?

Customer: I need to get a new lawnmower, and I hope you have a good selection.

Greeter: Why do you need a new one? What is wrong with your current mower?

Customer: Not that it is any business of yours, but it is broken.

Greeter: Well, can you not borrow your neighbour’s lawnmower? Or how about just leaving your lawn to grow? Have you looked into fixing your lawnmower? How about getting a goat to eat the lawn? I’ll ask again — why do you need a NEW lawnmower…?

Again, somewhat difficult to envision a conversation like that, when the fundamental purpose that the green retailer exists is to sell stuff, whether it is truly needed or not. That is the logic on which we have built our whole economy, and not selling their stuff does not meet any of the business goals of any business I know of.

Where do I stand on all this? Well, I’m not against “green”. I’m against us painting our current lifestyle and practices as “green” and missing the boat on the big stuff. Like reforming our behavior with the planet, our customers, and ourselves.

My concern is that getting fixated on checking and comparing “green” labels and buying offsets and fair-trade products and consuming only “new improved, green” things, we’ll sleepwalk our way into changing — nothing. Because it is our consumption mentality that ultimately has to change, and not just the composition of the things we actively consume.

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9 thoughts on “Green marketing — the reality

  1. Thanks for the article! I find “green marketing” can just be a buzz word, and has little to do with what actually takes place. Some green marketing is legitimate, but some of it is just to make consumers feel better about their purchase, making it a competitive differentiator.

    1. Hi Nicole — it has definitely become a buzz word, as you suggest. It’s really trying to suggest some kind of good-for-you, positive-for-the-earth “green consumption” which is closing in on being an oxymoron, from my way of looking at things….

  2. I would say that “green retailers” are “stuff-sharing” groups like Zipcar (for cars), and perhaps you could include any used-stuff dealers in there too.

    Speaking of the phrase “green marketing” — you may wish to check out Joel Makower’s article “Green Marketing is Dead” if you haven’t yet. It’s thought-provoking reading which caused quite a stir and a flurry of other articles.

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