Last night I caught the first episode of the BBC documentary "The Men Who Made Us Spend" (if you live in the UK and you're quick, you can catch the who series on iPlayer). It was a fascinating (and balanced) history of the rise of consumerism from the 1924 Phoebus Cartel of lightbulb manufacturers (who agreed to limit the life of their products to 1000 hours when 2500 was the norm) through to those poor deluded souls who camp outside Apple Stores to be the first to get their mitts on the latest slightly better model iPhone.
The most painful moment in the episode was when presenter Jacques Peretti asked Stephen Howard, Global Head of Sustainability at IKEA, how he reconciled the company's claims of sustainability with their continued marketing of throwing away existing furniture from the famous "Chuck Out The Chintz" to the modern day "My Old Sofa is So Going to the Kerb". Poor Mr Howard could only stammer that he would ask the question of the marketing department.
This is a huge issue, not just one for IKEA - for at least 60 years the modern economy has relied on old products going out of fashion and being replaced long before they physically break, a kind of Faustian pact between consumer and producer with planetary limitations being the party pooper.
But while it is easy to deride such consumerism, the problem is that the modern capitalist model has brought fashionable clothes, furniture and vehicles to billions on low incomes - who wants to go back to the model where the moneyed classes can afford comfortable lifestyles while the majority scratch a living in homesteads and city slums? I love my tech as much as the next person, and it would be churlish of me to deny the process which has brought us huge leaps from my first computer, a BBC Model B, to my (not quite) cutting edge iPhone4.
Fortunately there are solutions. The circular economy has the power to keep materials being useful, just in different forms so function and fashion can keep moving forward. The digital economy means that we can consume huge amounts of information - movies, books, music, TV etc etc without consuming as much stuff. eBay has opened a huge market for secondhand goods, Freecycle one for freebies. And the technology which means at 210mph Porsche super car can have emissions less than that of a Prius show that planet friendly technology doesn't have to mean stuff made out of cardboard.
It's a big ask, but I think we can have our lifestyle and sustainability, if we really put our minds to it.
Yesterday I opened the BigEcoShow at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland. My address was entitled "The Quiet Green Revolution" - reflecting on the scale of the changes happening already on the green agenda, and the need to develop more quality green products and services to bring sustainability to the mainstream. You can listen to my speech here:
I was followed by keynote speaker Paul Taylor of Camira fabrics which is one of those fabulous green companies that no-one has ever heard of. In my favourite case study, the company took a month's worth of jute coffee sacks from Starbucks, made them into a fabric and sold it back to the company so they could use it on seating in four new outlets (this 'product with a story' is a theme which I think will grow in coming years). It is companies like Camira who are making that quiet green revolution happen.
And Work Zone Awareness Week, National Beanpole Week, Bowel Cancer Awareness Week, Parkinson's Awareness Week, Depression Awareness Week, World Voice Day, World Haemophilia Day etc, etc, etc.
Please, please, spare us from more me-too 'awareness raising'. It is just lazy copycat activity for activity's sake, preaching to the converted. It might make us feel good about ourselves (a rude person might say 'smug') but it clearly flies over the heads of the intended audience.
Because, let's face it, if these weeks, days and hours worked, I'd know what Work Zone Awareness was. But I don't. Do you?
Years and years ago I was doing some consultancy work for the producer of a really good green product - one which managed to substitute benign natural materials for a highly aggressive and dangerous chemical. Our project was largely technical, but my main contact, the Business Development Manager, was constantly complaining about his difficulty in selling the product beyond 'The Green Niche'.
The product was sold in bog standard white plastic bottles adorned with a black and white label which looked as if it had just come out of a cheap inkjet printer, because it just had. Across the label were the words "ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY" in crude bold lettering with the actual function of the product in a smaller font underneath.
I ruminated on this for a while and put together a presentation for him (for free = mistake) based on some academic work about the development of green markets and the barriers to the mainstream. The conclusion was that mainstream customers saw 'green' as the third or fourth 'button' when making buying decisions, usually after performance and price. I recommended they promote the health & safety benefits of the product above the 'environmentally friendly' tagline as their target customers take their employees' safety very seriously - and get them printed properly.
The BDM nodded his way through my talk and said "I couldn't agree more. That's what we've been doing for years."
In my naiveté, I didn't yell "No it isn't! That's your problem! Your product might be great, but it looks like complete crap!"
It would have cost peanuts to get the labels redesigned and professionally printed, but the BDM preferred to keep blaming the buyers at his prospective customers for 'not getting it'. Nothing changed and the product failed to break into the mainstream.
The lesson here is the same one I preach about using Green Jujitsu to engage with employees - you MUST take the blinkers off and put yourself in the other guy's shoes. You may be massively proud of your green product or service, but outside the green niche, 'green' is seen as one of a number of attributes rather than the prime one.
If you want to break into the mainstream, you've got to compete on performance, price AND planet. If you find yourself blaming the people you expect to buy the product, you're on a hiding to nothing.
Yesterday I was a panelist at the "Chasing the Green Pound" event hosted by Grayling's Future Planet team. It was a strong line-up with Ramon Arratia from Interface, Per Bogstad of Rainforest Alliance, Esther Maughan McLachlan of Sony Europe and yours truly, all chaired by Jo Cofino who heads up Guardian Sustainable Business.
Here are some of the points I took away with me:
The archetypal green consumer who will compromise on price and/or performance to 'save the planet' remains in a minority;
Retailers are doing the heavy lifting on behalf of the consumer by demanding good quality greener mainstream products from suppliers;
They do this for overall brand enhancement rather than to target green consumers per se;
Green product producers love legislation that penalises their less enlightened competition;
Product labels like the EU energy label can drive consumer buying patterns, but they need rapid updating to keep ahead of technology;
Long life products require new business models - Sony are actively investigating the concept of a 'multi-functional digital device for life' and what business model might support it;
In terms of changing how consumers use products, we have limited bandwidth to communicate with them and should use it wisely;
Nudge techniques may help - making greener behaviour the easier path eg a washing machine that defaults to a cooler wash cycle rather than sticking with the temperature of the previous wash;
Consumer resistance may provide business opportunities - the example was given of a company that empties lofts for free (and makes cash out of selling the contents) - this is one of the barriers to improving domestic insulation.
At the end, Jo asked us to look forward and predict future trends in consumer behaviour. I suggested that the shift from owning huge amounts of media (books, CDs, DVDs) to accessing the data directly (ebooks, MP3s, movies on demand) was eroding the 'status of stuff' - our bizarre pride in the wall of books/CDs/DVDs in the living room - and this may open all sorts of opportunities for mainstreaming lightweight and/or collaborative consumption such as Spotify, ZipCar, Airbnb etc. On a grand scale, this would free us to enjoy the experiences we are used to with a fraction of the ecological footprint of the physical product-based economy.
Yesterday I was delivering workshops at the Get It Sussed event in Gateshead. While for some the highlight was hanging around in the foyer with a rather sullen looking Little Mix showing no X Factor whatsoever during a fire alarm (their dark lord, Simon Cowell, was said to have been spotted as well), I was rather more starstruck by the keynote speech from Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods and Green & Black.
Sams tells a great story - from his parents growing up in the dust bowl in the 30s (flour companies started producing prettily decorated sacks as a form of marketing as it was standard practice for desperately poor farmers to upcycle them into clothes for their children) through the hippy entrepreneur days at Whole Earth to his more recent work on Green & Blacks and biochar. I took the following points away:
We are (or should be) all pioneers in this game. This takes resilience, guile and, above all, unrelenting optimism;
The product is paramount - Whole Earth peanut butter is very popular because it has a great taste, Green & Blacks because it is very rich chocolate AND they are both very sustainable;
Branding should be bold - they chose the name Green & Blacks because it was strong, easy to remember and had the hint of environment (green) and dark chocolate (black). Names with "eco" or the like in them were considered but quickly ditched;
Storytelling is a very powerful form of communication - and Sams is a master;
If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough - he told us how at one point he had bailiffs evaluating how much his bakery was worth, but he managed to pay his tax bill just in time.
It was great stuff and very inspiring - I've heard him tell most of this story before but it was still worth sitting through again.
I love getting away from it all. Leaving all the pressures of modern living behind and getting out on the hills, travelling under my own steam, sleeping under the stars and carrying everything I need - ergonomically designed rucksack, super-lightweight tent, Polartac fleece and hat, Goretex jacket and trousers, vibram-soled boots, laminated maps, LED headlamp torch, iPhone with GPS etc.
Hardly back to nature is it, with all those hi-tech fabrics and gizmos? Of course I could choose to go wearing 'traditional' outdoor clothing (tweed, animal skins?), take nothing with a battery, and try and hunt and gather my own food, but frankly I'd rather be comfortable.
When people ask why environmental concerns are not taken more seriously by the general public, at least part of the answer is that many environmental 'solutions' presented to them are in the form of pious hairshirt austerity, or are presented as such. And the vast majority of people simply don't want to give up the comforts of modern life - can you blame them? Have you ever seen an advert that says "buy our shoes, they're less comfortable, uglier and more expensive than our competitors!"? For good reason...
Unfortunately many of the spokespeople for the 'green movement' doesn't understand this - they simply rant about how people "don't get it". The spiritual benefits of austerity may appeal to a minority, but asking people to give up on the joys of modern living is never going to get traction with the masses.
That's not to say certain 'austerity' measures can't be sold in a positive way:
Insulate your house: lower bills, fewer draughts, more comfort!
Cycle to work: get your exercise en route, save on parking, gym membership and time!
Low energy lightbulbs: lower bills, longer lasting than incandescent!
Second hand books/music/clothes: indulge in the pleasure of hunting for an obscure gem!
But what really works is products and services which are eco-friendly AND highly desirable. Buying MP3 music, ebooks and using movies on demand are all much greener than their physical equivalents - and much more convenient. When I interviewed Peter White, Global Sustainability Director of Procter & Gamble, for The Green Executive, he told me that P&G weren't interested in the green niche, they wanted to sell green to the mainstream consumer - so they had to compete on performance, price AND planet - no compromises. Wise words.
There's disappointing news from the world of low emission vehicles (LEVs) - while sales of all cars were up 10% last year in the US, alternatively fuelled vehicles (incl hybrids) only rose 2.3%. In the UK, however, road fuel sales were down. This broadly suggests that people are simply driving less rather than investing a premium in a vehicle which would cost less to run overall. But it may also be fear of the new - will that electric car run out of charge half way down the M1?
The relationship between green products of any type and consumers has always been complicated - for example organic food dominates baby food sales but not 'adult food' - we're happy to eat cheap crap ourselves but won't feed it to our kids. There are many reasons for consumers being lukewarm on green products:
Costs - perceived or otherwise
Perceived low quality
Lack of understanding/fear that a new system will be complicated
I've argued for a long time that it is retail which is acting as a gatekeeper for fast moving consumer goods. Their huge buying power can both drive innovation, ensure quality and keep costs reasonable. The consumer can then trust the retailer to get it right on their behalf.
But what for other sectors? The golden rule is to put yourself in your customers' shoes. If you are aiming for a green niche then you can compromise on performance or price for a very green product. However if you want to go mainstream, you must compete on performance, price and planet.
Of course the ultimate goal is a green product that people deeply desire. MP3s and e-Books aren't marketed as green, but they are - and they sell in their millions. It may be that the auto industry needs to go through another couple of iterations before they hit that level of customer pull for LEVs - after all one technology has dominated the industry for 120 years and that it take some shifting.
Interesting story in the news this morning that Royal Bank of Scotland has pulled out of sponsoring Climate Week after pressure from NGOs angry at the bank's $13bn investments in fossil fuel industries.
To me, this is an interesting case that throws up all sorts of questions - the trickiest of which is "can no-one with a financial stake in fossil fuels campaign against climate change?" I've got half a tank of diesel in the car outside, yet I'm heading off (by fossil fuelled public transport) in 90 minutes to give a lecture on climate change to engineering students. Am I a hypocrite?
A hard line on this would surely rule out most corporate sponsors, which then begs the question - who will sponsor 'Climate Week'. Actually, I'm getting a bit cynical about all these special 'weeks' and 'days', anyway, so I'm not so bothered.
The lesson here for businesses in general is more clean cut. You won't get much credit for 'doing good' if you are still 'doing bad'. Stopping doing 'bad' things is the litmus test between a true green business and the rest. And that takes real leadership.
A week or so ago my other half proudly presented me with a new kettle. "Look!" she said "It's an eco-friendly one!" And sure enough it was slathered in claims it would save 66% energy.
"Mmm", I thought, putting on my electrical engineer's hat (which is admittedly a bit dusty), "A heating element is 100% efficient, the heat capacity of water is constant, the heating time is so quick you won't get significant losses through the sides, so what could possibly be 66% more efficient?"
The answer is, with a flat element and a gauge that lets you see if you have a single cup of water inside, you can save energy by only boiling the amount if water you need. When I explained this to her, she felt she had been conned. We ended up having a long conversation about greenwash.
Here's the evidence as I see it:
For the prosecution:
An intelligent, but busy person (she has a PhD and two small kids) assumed that the kettle itself was 66% more efficient, because she's not enough of a green geek to pore over the details;
The savings are almost entirely dependent on the user (and the user frequently making single cups of tea/coffee);
The kettle hasn't changed much - probably the most significant thing was the sticker on it about energy - now gone;
As flat element kettles are getting more common, anyone could measure out a cup of water. Even with a traditional element kettle, you can use less water with a bit of care.
For the defence:
The labels clearly said that the savings would be down to you being able to use less water;
The nature of a kettle is such that the amount of water is the key factor in energy consumption;
Philips are bringing the water factor to the attention of the user;
The 66% figure came from a DEFRA study, so has third party validation.
So, you, the jury, what verdict would you give? Guilty, or not guilty?
Yesterday I opened my Sunday supplement to find a double page ad featuring these two quite incredible looking BMW electric cars. "Wow!" I thought, until I noticed they were both concept cars. Digging a bit deeper, I found that BMW hope to have a production version ready by 2013.
Hmmm. Is this greenwash I asked myself (and Twitter)? Is it within the rules of green marketing to show a work in progress in such a prominent way? After all, the project could be quietly shelved before it comes to fruition, but the reader would be left with the impression that BMW is "doing something green".
But the bigger issue is the difference is whether promises count, as opposed to results. As I explain in The Green Executive, the green business battle line has moved past promises, commitments and speeches to delivery, results and installations. It is no surprise that Toyota has topped Interbrand's Top 50 Green Brands 2011 - they've had the iconic Prius hybrid on the road since 1997, not floating around in concept land.
As that battle line inches forward, what used to be regarded as good green performance is now seen as old hat. And it is not what you intend to do that matters, but what you have done.
I spotted this billboard for a Hi-tec walking boot a few months ago and I used it on Wednesday's Green Marketing webinar as an example of how not to do green marketing. I am both a green consumer and a keen rambler, so I am a prime target for this product and its marketing message, yet it left me cold.
The obvious flaws are the uninspired imagery and the lack of any justification for the claim that this boot is in anyway greener than normal boots - and with rivals as ambitious on sustainability as Timberland, they'd need have to have a good story to tell.
But the real damage is done by that incredible strap-line:
"The environmentally considered walking boot".
Urgh! Apart from the dodgy grammar, and its sheer clunkiness, it means nothing. Where's the wit, where's the insight, where's the passion? Did someone actually get paid to produce this?
I saw this refrigerated trailer at Stranraer while waiting for the ferry to Belfast last week. If you can't make it out, it is marked with a large green footprint shape proclaiming that it is 99% recyclable.
This is a classic case of green wash as:
1. Most trailers are made of steel and aluminium and will be almost entirely recyclable. So what's the big deal with this one? Trying to make normal look green is a classic form of greenwash.
2. At an educated guess, the significant components of this trailers' life cycle impact will the fuel use to move it around and the energy to keep the contents cool. So a green trailer would be lightweight, aerodynamic, very well insulated and have a very efficient compressor. These big issues seem to have been ignored in favour of a lesser factor - another form of greenwash.
Two greenwashes for the price of one. As users of twitter would say, #epicfail.
Each session lasts for one hour. You need access to a computer with sound or a computer and a telephone. You will receive a workbook to apply the learning to your organisation prior to the start of the session.
Greenwash is widely regarded as the greatest sin in the green business world. The term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in response to those "hang up your towels and we won't wash them everyday" cards you find in hotel bathrooms. It's a portmanteau of 'green' and 'whitewash', meaning covering up lots of non-green activity with a token green gesture.
So, the question is, if greenwash is so evil, how green do you have to be before you can say you are green? This is a tricky one as it is a subjective judgement and the bar is constantly rising. Here are your options:
1. Be extremely ambitious: make sure your performance is so far ahead your peers that your reputation is unassailable.
2. Meet a third party standard, for example one of the many eco-labels available.
3. Get a third party respected judgement - for example Marks & Spencer use Jonathan Porritt as an independent assessor of their Plan A sustainability programme. But you must take their criticism as well as their praise.
4. Avoid the self-justification and let the observer decide: simply present your achievements and shortcomings without declaring yourself the saviour of the planet. This is dangerous as it can lead to greenwash by default, unless you are extremely honest.
Whichever approach you take, honesty, openness and transparency are the key guiding principles.
I'm not a mainstream environmentalist for one very good reason - like any tribe, you need to sign up to a set of beliefs that are taken as gospel, but are often over-simplistic when you're dealing with the real world. One of these beliefs is "Brands are bad" - brands are a symbol of consumerism and consumerism is killing the planet.
Well, yes and no. If you look the average Joe or Joanne's carbon footprint it is dominated by the mundane - heating our homes, getting around, cooking, eating, lighting. With the exception of booze and soft drinks, these markets aren't dominated by brands - no-one buys mains gas from one company because it has a better brand - and it's all the same gas at the end of the day. You get on the train that's at the station, rather than waiting for your favourite brand - you might specify a train provider because it is more comfortable or has wifi, but not because of the brand. The choice of petrol for your car is usually made on price and convenience factors rather than Shell, BP or Esso (unless you are actively boycotting one).
But let's go onto consumer goods and look a what a brand is. Why do companies develop brands? Because they add intangible value to the products. That value has no carbon footprint - it is ephemeral. That intangible value is an aspect of human nature - we want stuff that makes us feel good whether it's a designer label or an extremely expensive bicycle.
From an environmental point of view, it is actually better for a consumer to spend £300 on a pair of designer jeans (and look after them) than blow the same amount in a cheap highstreet clothing store and chuck the clothes when they get the slightest bit of wear and tear. Likewise, a posh champagne has roughly the same carbon footprint as a bog standard bottle of cava (and certainly less than the equivalent bottles you could buy for the same money), yet the former is seen as consumerism and the latter, not. It doesn't make sense.
Branding can be a force for good. Many of the companies that are leading the way in going green are doing it to protect and enhance their brand. Marks & Spencer, Timberland and Apple spring to mind. Others like Body Shop, Patagonia and Natural Collection are brands which were founded with green/ethcis in mind. So never feel guilty about working for, developing or purchasing a big brand - there's nothing immoral about it. Just make it a green brand and watch that intangible value grow even higher!
Saw this Audi ad yesterday and thought it was all wrong from a green marketing point of view - click on it to see it in all its glory.
This just isn't a compelling message - the car is small and the CO2 is very large. Does "13% less" really motivate the man in the street to act? How does the fact that 3 out of the 5 main 'words' in the ad are 'scientific' (CO2, 129g/km, 13%) captivate potential buyers? Very weak, in my opinion.
If we compare this with the Fiat ad that I snapped a few weeks ago (below), the difference is quite noticeable - setting aside the more dramatic early morning lighting. This campaign associates green with fun, not just 'less'. The bold typography and colours reinforce the fun and the car is centre stage. Simple, but effective.
Sustainability story of the day must be Marks & Spencer's launch of a carbon neutral bra, knickers and suspender belt set - certainly taking the hair shirt out of corporate social responsibility. Interestingly, the most popular news story on last month's edition of The Low Carbon Agenda was that the WWF had signed up a top lingerie model as an ambassador. One of my favourite quotes is from Ashley Lodge of Harper Collins who said their staff engagement strategy is "more stilettos than sandals". Has the sustainability world gone sex mad?
The oldest marketing maxim in the world is "sex sells" - and sustainability is no different. And why shouldn't sustainability be sexy? The industry has a tendency to fear that "sexy" can mean "sexist" and that all communications have to be worthy and dull.
But when you're trying to catch someone's attention - the average joe, not a treehugger - ranting at them doesn't work, being boring doesn't work, being smug doesn't work, and a pair of hands cupping a sapling certainly doesn't work. You have to really grab them - and sex is one way of doing that. Marks & Spencer know that carbon neutral suspenders will gain more column inches in the mainstream media than carbon neutral socks. WWF know that a top lingerie model will get more attention from non-greens than, say, Jonathan Porritt (no offence, Jonathan). It works, so why not?
Can you put a bit more va-va-voom into your sustainability programme?
Back in 2002 I saw US green marketeer Jacquelyn Ottman give a presentation at a conference in London entitled "The Green Graveyard" - the place where clever but ill-conceived green products and services go to die. It was one of those rare moments that really blows your mind on a subject - and The Green Graveyard was such a powerful metaphor for me that I have quoted it in both my books (fully attributed of course). Thousands of people have seen me wave an early model (not so-) compact fluorescent lamp around as I speak - that case study is straight out of The Green Graveyard (with permission).
So when Ottman's latest book, The New Rules of Green Marketing, came out I ordered it right away and sat down to read with relish. One problem. No Green Graveyard. Not a whiff of it. I was going to review the book in depth here, but I can't objectively - it's like going to see Motorhead and them not playing The Ace of Spades - no matter how good the rest of the gig is, the omission is going to leave a deflated feeling. It's a fine book, very accessible, nice case studies, good summaries, comprehensive, particularly suitable for someone new to green marketing, but I would like to have seen a bit more on how and why the case studies work. I'll leave it at that.
But The Green Graveyard is/was an concept of genius - simple, powerful and memorable - and a stark warning to everyone and anyone trying to bring green products and services to market. The Graveyard is full of such products and services that have failed in their marketplace, usually because they assume that the customer will accept a compromise on price, performance, convenience, aesthetics or prestige in return for green credentials when only a tiny minority will. No-one wants an ugly light bulb in their living room - no matter how energy efficient it is - so to avoid the Graveyard, you must develop a bulb which is aesthetically pleasing as well as efficient.
I would love to have created such a metaphor - and I hope Ottman will resurrect it.