Even If Sustainability Isn't Your Goal, You Can Still Reap The Benefits

Not all environmental innovations start out with the environment in mind. But can you turn a coincidence into a branding goldmine? Or will you be tarred as a greenwasher?

A few months back, an interesting story caught my eye. It documented the claims being made by the cereal Malt-O-Meal around their plastic bag packaging. According to Malt-O-Meal, their bags created less environmental impact than the competition’s boxes. They had, in fact, created a website titled "Bag The Box" to tout these environmental claims.

From a strictly environmental perspective, this was a bit of a head scratcher: some of Malt-O-Meal’s cereals still come in boxes; the cereal bags are heavy plastic, with environmental baggage of their own; and the bags were introduced as cost-reduction measures years ago. It’s not like Malt-O-Meal woke up one morning and decided to make the world a better place one bag at a time.

Digging deeper, I discovered Malt-O-Meal actually had a very credible environmental policy outside the bag. Their manufacturing plants have conservation programs, they’re involved in the EPA’s SmartWay transport initiative, they purchase renewable energy, save water and waste, and use Energy Star equipment to cut down on power.

But it was the bag, and the potential greenwash that came with it, that made the news. So was it good news for the brand, or bad?

Imperfect Progress Is Still Progress

I met with Malt-O-Meal’s consumer marketing manager Linda Fisher to dig into the potential hazards of their approach. Fisher was refreshingly candid and unapologetic.“We’re a small company--a David among Goliaths--and we introduced bags because they saved money and gave us a competitive edge” Fisher explained.

“Truth is, cost savings were a big driver behind all our initiatives, from energy conservation to waste reduction.” It must be working. Over the last 10 years, Malt-O-Meal doubled market share to 10 percent. And the company is the only cereal manufacturer to build new plants to meet demand over the last decade.

But will the bag controversy help or hinder Malt-O-Meal’s growth? Or does it even matter?

I believe imperfect progress is still progress. While the bag is not a perfect solution to waste, it beats the "bag and box" favored by other manufacturers, hands down. In fact, it contains 75% less consumer packaging than a comparably sized box with an interior bag. It also gains legitimacy, thanks to Malt-O-Meal's other initiatives, initiatives I would never have been aware of, were it not for the bag controversy.

Finally, the bag is a good innovation on other fronts. For example, it reduces costs, enabling Malt-O-Meal to compete effectively. And as Fisher says, those cost-savings are passed onto consumers, having saved U.S. families over $1 billion since 2006.

So it would seem that this measure, born of efficiency, has helped create a stronger green brand for Malt-O-Meal. Even if it is in a roundabout way.

My Brand Is Green?

Speaking with Joel Makower of GreenBiz, I was reminded of another twist on the accidental green brand.

Church and Dwight, the 150 year old maker of Arm & Hammer baking soda, was dragged into sustainability somewhat unwittingly.

In 1988, Bryan Tomlinson, then Church and Dwight’s Canadian marketing director, was called by an environmental leader and admonished. The environmentalist told Tomlinson that her community was promoting environmentally benign baking soda as an alternative to harsher cleaning products, and they were upset Arm & Hammer wasn’t somehow reciprocating.

Tomlinson invited the environmentalist to Canadian headquarters where she demonstrated an area of opportunity that simply hadn’t occurred to the company. Thus began a collaborative relationship with other groups, and a raft of fresh ideas and applications for the traditional product. As Makower reports, within 36 months the brand grew approximately 30% in Canada.

Are You Sitting On Green Treasure?

If your company has made ongoing efficiency in product design a priority, chances are your products have become more eco-efficient in the process. This may be cause for a green claim, or it may not.

Before calling the ad agency, call an NGO with expertise in your sector. They should be able to assess where you stand vis a vis the competition; tell you if your product can stand up to the increased scrutiny a public green claim would bring; and help you weigh the true value of being sustainable in your sector.

If your product is off the mark in any of the above, don’t scrap the dream. A not-quite-perfect but progressive product could invite collaboration that triggers exciting innovation. Or perhaps your product could be held up internally as a model of your company’s future aspirations. Either way, there are benefits to your business.

Lessons

1. If you believe that part of your company is doing something noteworthy in terms of sustainability, invite informed opinions to assess the validity of that claim. Engage with an NGO. At minimum, they'll help you anticipate blind spots and potentially diffuse criticism. At best they’ll provide some valuable insights or new opportunities you hadn't seen.

2. Fail forward. Even if your claim has flaws and isn’t fit for consumers, analyze how it can be used to catalyze innovation, and how it can be held out to challenge employees.

3. One good thing leads to another. Recognizing a product with potential  merit might be just what your company needs to create better, more far-reaching policies, policies that in turn create efficiencies and better business results.

[Image: Malt-o-Meal]

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