Written by Landor Associates' Chief Strategy Officer, Russ Meyer, this series explores the evolution of the sustainability movement through the eyes of a marketer interested in the growth of green brands
Green cars, green cleaners, green plywood. Today there are eco-friendly alternatives in virtually every product category. Consumer interest in green products continues to rise as more products are introduced each year. It becomes increasingly more difficult to imagine a time when climate change and sustainability weren’t a concern. In less than a generation we’ve gone from giving little consideration to sustainability to it becoming part of most people’s daily lives.
With all the information coming at us every day, it’s often hard to get perspective. In this series focusing on the history of green brands and marketing, I’m hoping to provide that perspective—to give context to where we are with green marketing, how we got here, and where green marketing is possibly headed.
The 1960s: The Awakening
For the majority of the world’s population the 1960s were “before I was born.” In the ’60s we had the pesticide DDT on our vegetables, lead in our paint, and asbestos siding on our houses. These and other environmental health and safety issues weren’t concerns to the general public in those days. Consumers were often unaware of the environmental dangers in their homes and surroundings. It took a couple of high-profile books to alert everyone to these dangers.
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s breakthrough book published in 1962, documented the effects of pesticide pollution and is credited with beginning the environmental movement in the United States. Written in response to a question about bird deaths, Silent Spring was the first breakthrough environmental book to appear on the New York Times best-seller list. Carson argued that pesticide spraying was harmful to wildlife as well as humans, and subsequent studies ultimately led to a ban on DDT in the United States in 1972. Carson was widely considered the first author to popularize the interconnectedness of environmental, economic, and social well-being.
Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed carried just as much impact as Silent Spring. It focused on automobile pollution and safety, and the auto industry’s reluctance to improve both. Nader’s findings initiated consumer advocacy in the face of large corporations, and both the Clean Air Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act were established. Many of today’s auto pollution and safety features, including emission reductions, catalytic converters, seat belts, and air bags are a direct result of these laws.
The 1970s: The Response
If in the 1960s mainstream consumers’ eyes opened to environmental and safety dangers, it was in the 1970s when the U.S. government responded. As environmental events continued to alarm consumers (including the Arab oil embargo, the Ford Pinto recall, Three Mile Island, and Love Canal), the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations stepped in to introduce legal protection for the environment and consumers. The 1970s saw the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the creation of both the EPA and OSHA. The Natural Resources Defense Council was also created and the first Earth Day was held.
Despite emerging environmental awareness, not many products were marketed in a way that today would be considered “green.” However, some products were beginning to appeal to a small but growing consumer segment that rejected mainstream consumer brands. Food cooperatives selling organic, natural products flourished. Tom’s of Maine marketed non-phosphate laundry detergent. But the true back-to-nature product breakout of the 1970s was granola, a healthy mix of nuts, fruits, and grains. Although granola has been around since the 1890s in the United States, in 1972 it became commercially available from three mainstream brands: Quaker Oats, Kellogg’s, and General Mills. Even Grape-Nuts took a back-to-nature tack, featuring naturalist Euell Gibbons endorsing its product as a healthy natural alternative.
The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent decades in the United States, with sweeping changes in politics, society, and culture. These times were also when the seeds of consumer interest in sustainability were first sown. This interest continued to growth over the next 10 years. In fact, many of the best-known green brands of today can trace their roots back to the 1980s.
In the next piece, Russ Meyer will explore growing consumer awareness and the emergence of green products.
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