This decade was a tipping point for the sustainability movement and this piece, written by Landor Associates' Russ Meyers, looks at the promotion and expansion of green brands.
With the beginning of a new decade came new interest in sustainability. As the debate on the likelihood of a climate threshold continued worldwide, we reached a different tipping point in the United States. Sustainability, which earlier had seemed like a niche phenomenon, was suddenly everywhere during the decade of the 2000s. Government, media, and business became focused on sustainability as consumer interest and desire for green brands grew exponentially.
Unlike much of the world’s industrialized nations, which were taking a harder stance toward reducing global warming, the United States was harshly criticized for not supporting the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissions. Throughout most of this decade the government was not the primary driver of advancing the sustainability agenda. Instead, corporations—recognizing business, brand, and environmental advantages—took the lead in promoting sustainability.
Instead of following one path to success, corporate brands found different ways to utilize the growing interest in sustainability. For some corporations such as Walmart, sustainability was a means of improving a less-than-stellar reputation in addition to being "the right thing to do." For other companies, such as GE and IBM, sustainability was a framework for defining businesses they were already promoting. And for other corporations, such as Toyota and Honda, sustainability provided a whole new market opportunity. For much of the decade, corporate social responsibility took a decidedly green turn as many companies focused their attention on issues such as waste and carbon reduction, ethical sourcing, and energy consumption.
During the 2000s, green wasn’t big for only businesses—it was also big for brands. Brands such as Burt’s Bees, Seventh Generation, and Tom’s of Maine, traditionally considered niche or counterculture, proliferated at retail outlets and brought the issues of sustainability to consumers’ attention. Soon they were joined by completely new brands such as Method cleaning products and Tesla Motors electric cars. Even well-loved, mainstream, consumer brands sought to retool themselves with a greener image: Tide reduced its packaging footprint; SunChips bags were made using solar energy; Clorox created one of the fastest-growing green product lines in household cleaners. By the end of the decade many brands seemed to find some advantage in going green.
For a brief period, green even became trendy. Madonna posed for the third annual green issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Thousands lined up to get one of Anya Hindmarch’s "I’m Not A Plastic Bag" reusable canvas tote. The documentary film An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar in 2006. There were also other green-themed movies and "Green Week" on NBC, and the inevitable handwringing—the danger of trivializing sustainability. Had we finally achieved green nirvana or were we fast approaching green overload? And what, exactly, was driving this sudden interest in sustainability?
There were several likely factors that sparked this interest. Extreme weather around the globe, increasing energy costs, and high-profile food-and-health scares all played a contributing role as consumers began thinking about what they put in their mouths and on their bodies. And the more consumers learned about alternatives, the more sophisticated they became about making educated green brand choices.
Landor’s own ImagePower® Green Brands Survey tracked the changes in consumer perceptions throughout the 2000s, as consumers grew increasingly knowledgeable about the components that made a green brand. In 2006, consumers said that their perceptions of a green brand were based on the color of its logo and packaging or on "healthy" or "natural" messaging. By 2009, American consumers were much more informed, having multiple considerations when it came to selecting green brands. Biodegradable or recyclable packaging, energy efficiency, nontoxic materials, and even the environmentally friendly behavior of employees—all were factors consumers considered when determining the greenness of a brand. By the end of the decade, this multidimensional assessment of a brand’s "green-ness" was becoming the norm.
Of course, successful sustainable brands of the future will have to demonstrate performance against environmental measures. But they will also have to demonstrate success against economic and social criteria as well. This concern for "people, planet, and profits" is known as the triple bottom line, and it is increasingly becoming the standard of measure for any brand that claims to be "sustainable."
In the next and final piece, Russ Meyers explores what the future may hold now that sustainability is mainstream.
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