A History of Green Brands: 1990’s

In this post, Landor Associate’s Chief Strategy Officer, Russ Meyer’s outlines the problems with waste, the need to recycle and early signs of global warming.

In this post, Landor Associate’s Chief Strategy Officer, Russ Meyer’s outlines the problems with waste, the need to recycle and early signs of global warming.


Despite all the green gains made during the 1980s, throughout most of the 1990s green brands remained primarily a niche phenomenon. Brands such as Whole Foods and Burt’s Bees continued small and steady growth, but most of the mainstream consumer brands struggled to bring successful green products to market. In fact, through most of the decade the only green that roused people’s attention was the green that could be made through IPOs.

Nineteen-ninety ushered in one of the most prosperous decades in American history as the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than tripled during the decade. Big business was focused on new markets in the former Soviet Republics and the newly formed European Union, and a promising new thing called the “Internet” captivated us. Although still expressing concern for the environment when surveyed, American consumers were busy supersizing their fast food, bulk-shopping at Costco and Target, and purchasing SUVs in ever-increasing numbers.

All this growth and consumption led to a pair of distressing problems throughout the ’90s. The first was waste. Reminiscent of the garbage barge of 1987, it was in the early 1990s that New York state attempted to offload 2,200 tons of garbage to other states, only to have the 30 railcars returned to Staten Island. This and other high-profile news stories highlighted the garbage problem in the United States. Throughout the decade, the U.S. population would grow by approximately 10 percent, but municipal waste would grow to over 40 percent.1 Many in the United States soon began to understand that this trend was not sustainable, and looked for answers in everything from shipping the garbage overseas to converting acreage into landfills to raising recycling rates.

It was during this time that recycling became mainstream across the United States. Despite a decade-long increase in municipal waste, the ’90s also saw expansion in recycling. At the start of the decade, only 8 percent of the generated waste was recycled. By 1999, almost 33 percent of all U.S. municipal waste were being recycled.2 This resulted in more than 125 tons of recycled material in 1999 alone.

But this increase in the supply of recycled materials was not matched by an increase in demand for products made from recycled materials. Because of this disparity, recyclable materials were soon piling up across the United States. It would not be until the middle of the next decade that demand for products made from recycled materials would catch up to the ever-growing supply.

 In addition to the waste problem, the world had a growing problem with global warming. Although a topic of analysis within the scientific community for many years, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the general public began to be concerned about climate change. Uniting the scientific and political around the world, climate change was the primary focus of the Rio Earth Summit, organized by the United Nations in 1992. Out of this summit came the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sought to stabilize greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.


The precedence of this treaty, as well as the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, led to a global focus on greenhouse gases. The last half of the 1990s saw a host of governmental interventions attempting to reduce soot, auto emissions, and carbon dioxide, even as trucks and SUVs got larger and larger. In fact, the validity of global warming, and any human contribution to it, was debated vigorously throughout the late ’90s, with many governments and corporations refusing to acknowledge any contribution to the problem.

Ironically, it was a petroleum company that became one of the first brands to position itself as a green brand. Having acknowledged global warming as real in 1997, BP’s CEO, Lord John Browne, sought to gain a brand advantage against his competition by repositioning BP as a global energy company rather than simply a petroleum company. Under the tagline “beyond petroleum”, BP launched its new positioning in 1999. Highly controversial, BP’s green positioning helped the company grow its brand and its business over the next six years. In that time, BP would be joined by other brands that recognized the advantage of adding sustainability to their brand positioning.

The next piece explores the 2000s as a tipping point through the promotion and expansion of green brands.

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About the author

Russ is an expert on brands and sustainability, and currently serves as Global Director, Strategy and Insights for Siegel+Gale. Since becoming a marketing professional, Russ’s focus has been helping companies across the globe deliver remarkably clear and unexpectedly fresh brand experiences.