Brand managers might not be natural allies for the environmental movement. Business is widely seen as the problem, and the wasteful consumption orientation of marketing and marketers is usually at the center of blame for the widespread waste of consumer society. Usually and for a lot of very good reasons, brand managers are popularly viewed as enemies of the environment.
When it comes to the environment, I admit it up front. I’m scared. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking, all of my life, on our environmental impact and our likely future. For anyone who has any remaining doubt, I recommend having a look at the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an extensive, accessible, and incredibly thorough set of studies and documents available for free. We are digging up the Earth, turning raw materials into waste, deforesting and extinguishing species at such a rate that our grandchildren are going to live in a very different world.
Our industrial age notions of progress were founded in an 18th century sense of unlimited resources and unlimited possibilities. We turned those into ideological and material systems of government, business, and consumption. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report is probably the single most extensively peer-reviewed scientific document ever produced, and its conclusions are, to my mind, unequivocal. And damn frightening.
Climate change is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg, the one that has been brought to our attention latest and best. We are realizing that, if we are to keep living on this planet, we need to change our social systems.
Consumers are only involved in a fraction of the resource expenditures that businesses are. Consumers don’t pollute-they pay businesses to pollute for them. We need solutions that impact business practices. They can do that directly or indirectly. As I see it, there are three macro-categories of green business solutions:
1. Consumer/market-based solutions
In these solutions, consumers are given choices and guidance leading them to make greener decisions. New brands that are green or sustainable fit the bill here. Along with many others, Consumer Reports has their own offering called Greener Choices.
Here, the government steps in and regulates business and/or consumers, telling them what they can and cannot produce. Laws on emissions, toxins, and pollution are the first step. This seems heavy-handed, but we already decry the lack of environmental regulation in other (often less industrially developed) countries, and we already have polluting laws and regulations on the books.
3. Magical-mystical sea change:
The final category relies on people increasingly making the right decision as thought leaders alter the tide. This is the default setting currently more-or-less in place. Businesses lead the charge as change agents of the New Corporate Environmentalism, as John Jermier and his colleagues recently termed it in a very insightful book chapter. Companies like Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, and BMW offer, among their other offerings, more sustainable choices. Consumers, of their own initiative, opt to live the sustainable life, buying organic salad from Whole Foods, wearing organic cotton trousers from Wal-Marts, driving BMW mini-Cooper. Diffusion happens. The novel ways of early adopters eventually become the way of everyone.
There are issues with each of these macro-solutions. In the first case of consumer/market based decision, consumers have no impartial, easy, convenient way to make the greenest decision. As with buying herbal remedies, there is no real regulation on environmental claims. Organic food seems more sustainable, but is it really? Often. Usually. But that’s debatable, and it depends.
Regulative governmental solutions are politically unpopular and require real leadership, which we have a genuine shortage of. They go against the prevailing winds of Chicago School Economics that say that the market always knows best, and market-based solutions are always the way to go. This ideology is part-and-parcel of the 18th Industrial Revolution-style system we are being forced to reconsider and change.
The Magical-mystical Sea Change is a wonderful tale of hope. But it’s actually hopeless as a plan. Businesses are not set up to do the job by themselves. Consumer tastes won’t necessarily lead in the right direction by themselves. Still, we need the motivation before anyone will take action. And we’ll need massive change pretty soon to leave the best environmental legacy for our descendants. Obviously, we need a hybrid solution that involves all these of these elements.
As a marketer, I’d like to toss up an idea that roughly fits into the first category (and depends to some extent on the regulative power of option 2 and the motivational desire of option 3).
Why don’t we have labels on everything that rate their cradle to grave environmental impact? We have nutrition labels (which are pretty weak) on food. What if we actually gave consumers informed choice of the environmental impact of all of their products and services?
What is the environmental impact of an avocado as opposed to a pear? I can guess, but it’s be nice to see a label of 7 on the avocado that had to get trucked up to Toronto from Mexico versus the 2 of the more locally-grown pear that got hauled here from Northern Ontario. What about that printer I just bought my son. Apparently from the user’s manual, I can see there are all sorts of European disposal laws in effect on it overseas, but I have no idea about its impact. Is it a 120 impact? A 70? A 250? How does it compare to other printers for sale? How does it compare to that avocado? How about that Hummer I’ve been wanting? What does it really rate? My airline travel to Dublin? Yeah, and I know it’s better for my body, but what’s the relative environmental impact of watching an hour of TV versus spending an hour at the gym?
I want to see a great big black and white sticker with a number on it on every product. A big black and white listing on the door post of every service. And an easily accessible online listing of every service and product.
My central point is that even if we want to make the green consumption decision, we don’t have good reliable, comparative information to allow us to make it. Even if we want to, we can’t make those decisions without a lot of work-and guesswork. And that fact is breeding all kinds of skepticism in consumers who want to go green, but don’t trust big companies at their word (I wonder why). Over a decade ago, my friend and colleague at UT-San Antonio, Tina Lowrey, did a great study that indicated just how skeptical and jaded were American’s so-called “green consumers” back then. Recent studies and popular indications say there has been little change: consumer still don’t trust businesses and their green marketing claims. Consumers “are a skeptical bunch when it comes to environmental marketing claims. And this makes it tough for companies hoping to tap into this marketplace” says a recent RAND report. The famed Green Consumer author Joel Makower also has some good insights on this topic.
The biggest hurdles? This idea is predicated on the notion that we can get an impartial body to make those ratings, to simplify highly complex decisions and trends into one comparable number. It’s a job for the accountants, bless them. I know a few and they’re up to job. It’s also a job for the regulators, who will have to finesse their way to a legitimate system and a legitimate set of standards.
Of course, once we have the rating system in place, it would be fairly easy to start taxing the higher impact products and services that are degrading the environment, just as we tax “sin goods” like alcohol and tobacco. This will outrage the free-will Chicago School economists. However, their great-great-grandchildren may some day be very pleased.
I call this system a system of Environmental Impact Ratings (EIRs). It’s a thought. It’s a first and important step, but by no means the only step.
Environmental Impact Ratings. Why not?
In this world of increasing commodification, the chief job of brand managers is to hunt out sources of differentiation. The EIR idea aligns this quest for differentiation with environmental relevancy. It focuses all businesses on urgently important standards that are regulated by others and immediately visible to consumers. We can save the planet, and have something to build our brands around. Regulated and focused to healthy green objectives, marketing remains.
We can save the brand managers and save the world.