Is "Green" the New Organic?

Vanity Fair is doing it. The Week is doing it. Even Wal-Mart is doing it. Everyone is going green. So, here's a riddle for you: When is green no longer green? Answer: When it's a green marketing machine.

Just like organic, someone obviously got the memo that green is the trend du jour. And many companies jumped on the bandwagon because green wasn't just good business practice, but it made dollars and cents.

But now that the buzz about green has reached a critical mass, the consumer no longer knows who's green or what green even means? And that's exactly the point I'm afraid. If no one knows what green is, then anyone and everyone can say they're green and no one can tell the difference. And it's oh-so-PC right now to say we're green because who doesn't want to breathe clean air and drink clean water and save the planet for their children. Even the most anti-green of businesses and politicians know that green is good for them.

It's just like when organic was first introduced. At first it was a specialized product with standards as to what it meant to be organic. Consumers didn't mind paying extra to buy a product they thought was better for them. But now it seems like every product in the store is touted as organic, which is a real buzz kill to a company's niche appeal.

So, do the companies who claim to be green really care anymore about the environment than other companies? Or do they only see dollar signs in their future? It's hard to say, but the fact that even Wal-Mart carries organics now, shows the power of marketing. I mean, a company whose average spending on health benefits for its employees is 30 percent less than its competitors is suddenly health-conscious, has to raise eyebrows. Wal-Mart's move shows that going green isn't just about making people healthier. It's about greening a company's image, adding value to their products, and making money.

And Wal-Mart isn't denying this. Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott invited Al Gore to show his movie "An Inconvenient Truth" and speak to Wal-Mart employees. Gore is a big proponent of green, but he's made it clear that going green can be economically viable too. In addition to bringing Gore on board, Scott hired Glenn Prickett of Conservation International as a consultant about sustainable practices. The result: By eliminating energy usage by 30 percent, reducing waste by 25 percent in three years, and by investing $500 million in sustainability projects, Wal-Mart will save money and improve its image in the process.

If going green is a way to improve a company's image, will consumers realize the difference? I'm afraid not. A study in July 2006 by branding firm Landor Associates shows that fifty-eight percent of consumers don't care about "green." While the number of green-conscious consumers may have increased over the last year, the study also found that two out of three consumers can't name a green company. Either that means that companies aren't doing enough to tell their consumers they are green, or consumers are confused by all the buzz around green. The study also found some good news for companies whose packaging "looks" green. Consumers considered companies that use natural packaging (think Origins and Body Shop) and green logos (think BP), to be more "green." But this can backfire. Just because a company has the eco-conscious street cred to promote themselves as green, doesn't mean they are green in practice. And eventually consumers may realize the difference and investigate further. The clothes don't make the man, a book can't be judged by its cover, and a green package doesn't make a green product.

The lesson here: if green is going to be a brand it pays to be clearer as to what green means. Does it mean a product is sustainable? Or that it leaves a smaller environmental footprint (and what does that even mean)? Is green just a color or does it represent a lifestyle, a political position, or a mindset? If I say I'm green but I don't recycle, am I truly green? Is going green worth the extra cost for businesses? And are consumers truly more worried about philosophy or convenience when buying products? Ultimately, is green sustainable or is it just a fad?

One thing I can say for sure is that this whole green campaign is getting people talking. People who wouldn't normally know what global warming is are now talking about melting glaciers and changing weather patterns. Green has cache. It has mass-market appeal. And it has people excited. Now we have to see if we can turn all the chatter into action. And action into profits for the companies who are doing the right thing and really going green. That means companies who are building green into their business practices from the ground up. Not just talking the talk.

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  • Mattie

    Definitely concur that a whole lotta skepticism is in order here. For the true measure of a green company, I would suggest taking a looking at one of Paul Hawken's fantastic books. The Ecology of Commerce is a must read for anyone wishing to get their head around what it takes to make a green company.

    In spite of my cynicism, I do hope for all our sakes, that the trend toward greenness is NOT a fad, but a sign of things to come.

  • Uzo

    You're absolutely right! Big-business is using the term "green" the same way they have been using organic, fresh and "reduced fat" for years. These marketing execs today seem are acting like website creators in that they are taking a popular idea, putting it out there for the public and reaping the benefits, whether or not they actually help the cost. And with major players like Wal-Mart going "green", you can rest assure that the term "green" with will quickly lose it's sasche. Wal-mart had legal action taken against them for devaluating the entire organic industry with its low prices and marketing techniques. Clearly, they are not getting into the "green-game" with the intention of saving the polar ice caps.

  • fernando

    This is a great article. It underscores the need for more awareness, debate and consensus on generally accepted business practices that allow a business (perhaps by industry) to make legitimate claims about being "green" and be held accountable for them (perhaps, defining levels or degrees of tangible "green" action). With excuses to Forrest Gump, ultimately "green is as green does". An imperfect rule, no doubt, but we must hope for and work towards becoming an increasingly educated society on sustainability, one that has learned to reward those who are authentically green and ignore those who are not.

  • Elaine Lipson

    It's worth noting that "organic" does have a legal meaning, at least as far as food labeling, and farmers and manufacturers must meet rigorous standards to call their products organic. I'd like to see everyone using the word "sustainability" today make an effort to define it in specific and verifiable terms -- otherwise the term will quickly become meaningless.

  • Trevor

    Excellent post! When trendiness threatens an idea such as the "green" movement, how do we as a society respond in a way that continues to move "green" into an actual viable lifestyle of sustainability, not just for individual citizens or companies, but for the entire planet? The fact, as you point out, that the majority of people still do not care about green technologies, or even about learning what it really means to be "green," highlights how "green" marketing campaigns' real aims are to improve PR more than to positively impact the environment.