Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Sshhh, It's Green Innovation

There's something funny happening in the world of sustainable brands.

It isn't the fact more and more brands are embracing green. Leaders like Walmart and GE have made the business case for sustainability, and opened the floodgates to other brands looking for a competitive advantage.

It isn't the fact consumers are choosing green, either. As the twin stigmas of poor performance and high price fade away, shoppers feel safer buying eco-friendly brands. According to the 2010 ImagePower Green Brands study, 75% of U.S. consumers say it's "somewhat or very important to them" that the brands they buy come from green companies. That's translated into a 500% jump in green product launches between 2007 and 2009.

What is strange is an emerging pattern of how brands are marketing their green innovation. Or rather, not marketing it.

It better be green

Sustainability is a significant brand differentiator. It can be a driver of competitive advantage. So if you've got it, why not flaunt it?

I got my answer in a conversation about ingredient innovation with Steve Shriver, Founder and Chairman of Eco-Lips lip balm.

Eco-LipsWhen asked about how the palm oil debate was impacting his brand, Shriver responded that Eco-Lips hadn't used the ingredient in years.

But nowhere in the product packaging or advertising was there a mention of "100% palm oil-free."

The reason? Shriver explained that consumers simply expected forward thinking from his brand. In their eyes, Eco-Lips had better use only the most ethically sourced ingredients. They wouldn't reward compliance—but they certainly would punish transgression.

Funnily enough, the only time "no palm oil" was mentioned in Eco-Lips marketing was in messages to private label buyers. Although traditionally ruled by lowest price, these buyers were surprisingly swayed by a product with green benefits. But as Shriver pointed out, this message certainly didn't cross over to his mainstream communication.

The non-marketing of green isn't solely the domain of 'natural' brands like Eco-Lips. Mainstream giants like Nike are also engaged in quiet green innovation.

Nike has made a conscious effort to drive green through the entire organization—from corporate strategy to the design of athletic gear. All without waving a green banner at consumers.

Air Jordan XX3Testament to this is the Air Jordan XX3. Even though the shoe was made with earth-friendly materials, and ingeniously stitched to lessen the need for chemical glues, there's nary a mention of the shoe's green cred.

As Reena Jana writes in BusinessWeek, Nike is marketing the shoe on " ... its performance and brand connotations, rather than the green factor." Jana postulates the reason Nike downplays its green innovation might be "...from concerns of tampering with a proven branded success or fears of a backlash from consumers tired of 'greenwashing' ... ".

But there is, quite possibly, another factor at play. The fact that consumers expect innovative brands to be green. As such, playing up green credentials might be seen as overstating the obvious.

Seeing business through a green lens

Under progressive corporate sustainability programs like B Corp, certified companies need to amend governance documents to reflect green thinking at all levels of decision-making.

We call this the green lens. A way of seeing every aspect of your business through the eyes of a sustainability champion.

There are many advantages to incorporating the green lens in your business practices. Eco-efficiency, higher internal morale, and alignment with increasing regulation are just a few.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the green lens, though, is rapidly accelerated innovation thinking. Applying sustainability to all facets of your organization will put sustainability on every team member's agenda. In effect, it will give everyone the license to practice green innovation, and think of new ways to address old problems.

The result will be products that capture the attention, and the trust of consumers. Precisely the sort of action that speaks louder than words.

Add New Comment


  • Suzanne Shelton

    Excellent article, Marc. Our research shows Americans are searching for greener products, but not because they want to protect the environment. Instead they’re trying to save money or their lives.

    Case in point: Our latest Green Living Pulse study finds fewer Americans now believe global warming is occurring and being caused by human beings. Yet more Americans are buying green products -- 84 percent of respondents said they’re seeking green products and participating in at least some environmentally sustainable activities. Last year, the survey found 77 percent of Americans were doing so.

    Clearly, Americans aren’t going green to save the planet. Americans are looking for energy efficient products that lower their utility bills, or natural cleaning products that won’t harm their children. We’re a nation of Accidental Environmentalists

    Suzanne Shelton
    Shelton Group

  • Andrea Learned

    This is so true, Marc! Sometimes, if a brand has to tout their "green-ness" to high heaven, that gives consumers reason to be a little suspicious... Especially for younger than Boomer generations, green/sustainable aspects are very much assumed/expected - so touting can be a red flag. But "just doing it," wins the game in the long run. (And, kudos to Nike, for one).

    Andrea Learned