January 11th, 2013
While manufacturers seek to respond to consumer’s growing desire for cleaner, healthier products, how can consumers know what is truly “green.” And what can corporations do beyond green messaging to demonstrate true sustainability.
Dara O'Rourke, co-founder of GoodGuide, stated that growing awareness among consumers has driven a rapid growth in the number of products claiming to be cleaner and healthier. Today, for example, the largest growth in the automobile sector is hybrid cars; in the food sector it’s organic foods.
According to Aron Cramer, president and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, companies succeed best when they show that good is green rather than green is good. Consumers will buy something made under good working conditions, and companies don’t ignore that. The market is responding.
William Brent, executive vice president of Global Cleantech Practice, Weber Shandwick, advises companies to think about sustainability from a the ground up, take it beyond the level of product to the level of integrating good practices throughout the company. He used Walmart as a key example of a company that recognized the need to clean up its supply chain.
“We’re not at a place yet where we can say that any product is truly sustainable,” Cramer said, adding consumer behavior to the equation. A “green” t-shirt has more to do with how the consumer washes it than how the shirt was manufactured. The length of a shower has more ecological impact than the shampoo used. “We need to translate that into something that’s simple for consumers. We’re not there yet.”
Through GoodGuide, O’Rourke has found that some consumers want a simple answer, others want to drill down. “I don’t think brands get to control the message anymore.” Consumers get information from places they trust. Corporate America has the lowest trust level now than in any year previously tested, he said. He pointed to the backlash of recent attempts at messaging by McDonald’s and Chevron, where consumers turned the message upside-down and the negative messaging went viral.
Brent spoke of the importance of brand reputation. “It’s more important for the brand to be able to show an overall halo based on behavior, based on supply chain and everything they do. Then the specific product becomes less important.” He noted the way Tesla’s co-founder, Elon Musk, has framed it: he’s not in the business of making a great electric vehicle, but in the business of making a great vehicle that takes advantage of electric technology.
O’Rourke added that some of the best things are coming from startups—where “it’s in their DNA.”