Finances vs footprint: green marketing and getting people to act

With concern for the environment high, but translation into green purchasing low, Chris Byrne investigates how brands can leverage green marketing.


Green marketing can come from one of two places: opportunistic profiteering from eco-friendly positioning or genuine effort to be environmentally responsible. Usually it’s seen as something in between, with few corporates able to strike the balance between profit and planet.

Setting ethics aside, brands look to the environmental movement as an opportunity to build brand equity. The task of doing so effectively is challenging, with the cogs tightening on its abuse from both a regulatory and consumer point of view. Paradoxically, the vast majority of Australians are concerned about the issue – 95% expressed concern in Pollinate’s September 2013 ‘Green Pulse’ survey – but few, a mere 15%, make a conscious effort to buy green products and services. It’s an issue to which consumers pay lip service, prioritising finances over footprint, while at the same time savaging companies that drop the ball.

With scrutiny of corporates and theoretical concern high, the question is shifting from ‘how can an issue consumers merely pay lip service to be leveraged meaningfully?’ to ‘can a brand afford not to be green?’


There is no green bullet

The days of putting out a ‘green’ SKU to generate sales are gone, says head of Rainforest Alliance in Australia, Anita Neville. “We’ve seen a transition from having conversations with brand managers and marketers who wanted the green label to tap into that market,” Neville says.

“Now the conversation is about embedding sustainability in supply chains, adding value to a business’ operational plan and how it can become part of a brand’s values or story.”

Enacting organisation-wide sustainability practices is no mean feat, and one that can be hard to get senior management on board with. The challenge is getting management to understanding the business case for sustainability, Bridget James, principal at Think Green Marketing, believes. “They see it as difficult and expensive… it may look costly in the short-term, but in the long-term there is usually a strong business case for it,” James says.

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“A lot of businesses take that first step and look at eco-efficiencies in their business, but with a short-term focus and then think they can promote themselves as being green. If they’re going to embrace sustainability, they need to start looking at the whole of the business to get the full benefit of it.” Only then can benefits such as increased productivity, green market penetration, brand equity, risk-minimisation, better investor confidence, savings in eco-efficiencies and so on, be realised.

All this raises the question: can green marketing give brands a competitive advantage or even allow them to charge a premium? “A green seal by itself won’t be sufficient,” Neville says. “People will always pay for quality and only have so much money in their wallets.”

But with all things being equal, the experts agree green is a powerful differentiator. It can influence choice if there’s no loss for the consumer on price or product.


Make it easy, make it obvious

Two main forces stand in the way of eco-friendly consumption. The first is humankind’s innate laziness. Contemporary theories of psychology state the human brain is hard wired to focus on short-term problems and solutions, while long-term problems, such as environmental damage, tend to wind up in the too-hard basket. It’s more difficult to conceptualise the impact of purchases on climate change than on the family budget, for example.

The second force is capitalism, according to managing director of research company Pollinate, Howard Parry-Husbands. “Climate change is an economic externality,” Parry-Husbands says. “Unless you put a price on it, our current system of capitalism doesn’t enable us to find value in getting people to adopt positive environmental behaviours.”

This market pressure is the core factor preventing concern from translating into behaviour, Parry-Husbands believes. Green behaviours that have been widely adopted – such as kerbside recycling, using green bags instead of plastic bags and choosing energy- or water-efficient appliances – are usually embraced because they’re easy, make economic sense and have become accepted social norms.

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Parry-Husbands, who also conducts bike lane research for the City of Sydney, points to portly, middle-aged, Lycra-wearing men as an example. “They talk about how riding to work is great for the environment and they’re doing their bit. But ask them if they woke up one day and rushed out to buy a bike because the planet needed their help, and [they say], ‘No, I went to the doctor and he said I’ll be dead at 50 if I don’t do something about it’.

“Usually you’ll find there’s a new bike lane at the end of the road, they start to cycle, find they enjoy it, their health and well-being improves and suddenly they’re pro-environment.”

In this example, the eco-friendly choice to ride to work was made because it was easy and could be linked to obvious (personal as well as environmental) benefits. Brands can make green choices more compelling for people by aligning them with other benefits, like health or cost savings. Making behaviours ‘no-brainers’ for people and linking them to clear, relevant, short-term environmental benefits is generally the best way to leverage green.


Cringe or cool? Green’s identity crisis

The environmental movement has a perception problem, according to Parry-Husbands. Rooted in the extreme perception of ‘greenies’ and difficult to conceptualise, environmentalism can be a dirty word. “Green innovation in Australia can’t be couched in the language of environmentalism if it’s to appeal to most people.”

Yet the sustainability angle is increasingly resonating with consumers, particularly among young audiences engaged in social issues, according to Hugo Verkuil, vice president of marketing/ managing director, food and refreshment, at Unilever Australia. “What we increasingly see in the culture of consumerism is consumers want to make a difference but don’t know how or they think the small impact they can make is just a drop in the ocean.”

Make consumers feel part of a movement, Verkuil adds. “Consumers are increasingly looking for brand preference driven by more meaningful things, driven by more than just what the product does, and engage them on a level where they’re able to make a difference through their actions.”

Sourcing is an important issue in the Australian market, Verkuil says, adding, “It’s important that anything you do comes from a genuine desire to make a change [otherwise consumers will see through it]. Only then can you really make a difference and get consumers on your journey.”


Advertising is broken

The classic ad model of creating a need and presenting the solution doesn’t work with green marketing, findings deduced from Pollinate’s research suggest.

“We change our behaviour to resolve an anxiety, desire, tension or unresolved need,” Parry-Husbands explains. “We don’t have a need to be sustainable. It’s common sense not to be wasteful, but it’s also an effort… The old paradigm of making a highly engaging ad or a great educating message isn’t going to get people to rush out and buy a bicycle. You need to reduce the conditions that make it difficult.”

Neville agrees, “The marketing campaigns that are most successful are the ones that you don’t even know they’re really about green – get away from the eco approach to talk about the value of the product.” She believes humility (acknowledging you don’t have all the answers), transparency and authenticity are the keys to communicating green positioning. Origin and community stories are two trends that encapsulate these values currently working well in the market, Neville says.

“People want to know where a product comes from, who made it; they want stories brought to life with a human face on them. They like to engage with their community regarding these positive behaviours to get a sense of how their small actions can make a big change as part of a collective.”


Make it tangible

Good green messaging takes people on a journey from the individual to the community level to how it impacts on the planet as a whole. Promotional products company Chilli Promotions, which has adopted a carbon neutral policy itself, captures data across the full product cycle, from raw materials to delivery. To illustrate the impact of a 100% carbon offset scheme, the firm calculates the footprint of its operations and translates them into tonnes of CO2, litres of fuel and kilometres and vehicles off the road, so anyone can grasp the impact.

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Another way to make it tangible for consumers is to use trusted endorsements that appeal to the mainstream and not the extreme, such as Planet Ark. Parry-Husbands also advises making sure the position adopted aligns with the brand’s values. (Disclosure: Howard Parry-Husbands is a non-executive director of Planet Ark.)

Gone are the days when brands could slap a frog on a pack and call themselves green. Informed, empowered consumers will see a company’s sustainability practices for what they are. Brands that aren’t yet in a sustainability pathway open themselves up to risks in managing their supply chains, or even concerted backlash campaigns. Those looking at how sustainability can contribute to their business strategy can minimise risk, strengthen relationships, reduce costs and ultimately build greater brand equity.



Laws governing green marketing 

The Competition and Consumer Act 2010, which incorporates the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), states that businesses must not mislead or deceive consumers, or make false or misleading representations. The ACCC will “vigorously pursue companies that breach the law” and can issue fines of up to $1.1 million for businesses and $220,000 for individuals. Environmental claims (refer to ACCC website for full regulatory framework):

  • Must be accurate and able to be substantiated,
  • should be specific, not unqualified and/or generic statements,
  • should only be made for a real benefit,
  • must not overstate the benefit,
  • should clarify whether claimed benefits refer to packaging or content,
  • should use endorsement or certification with caution, and
  • take into account differing levels of knowledge among consumers.

Terms to treat with caution:

  • Green‘, ‘environmentally friendly‘, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘environmentally safe‘: clearly label and explain a product’s claim to these terms. If no other information is provided, they could be deemed misleading.
  • Recyclable‘ and ‘recycled‘ (including the Mobius loop symbol): can be deemed misleading if the whole product is not recyclable or if the facilities to recycle them are not available in Australia. ‘Certified‘ products: standards can relate to the product’s quality, performance, composition and/or means of production. Consider how reputable the certification scheme is.
  • Water/energy/fuel efficiency claims: product efficiency rating systems have their own set mechanisms for regulation, as well as being covered in the ACL.
  • Renewable‘ or ‘green‘ energy: disclose the source of the energy and proportion obtained from renewable sources (if less than 100%).
  • Carbon neutral‘, ‘carbon offsets‘ and ‘greenhouse gas emission‘ claims: disclose how the offset is generated, any negative side effects, validity across whole product life cycle, including product use. ‘Sustainable‘: be aware of impacts through all phases of the product’s life cycle and company operations.
  • Biodegradable‘: deemed misleading if the product takes a very long time or requires specific conditions to break down.


Chris Byrne
BY Chris Byrne ON 22 July 2014
Chris Byrne used to be research editor of this publication, but now contributes from various locations. He also contributes to The Fetch and has been published in The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Tweet him @penseive