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Posts Tagged ‘green’

Everything seems to be turning green. And there is nothing wrong with that – companies creating new, innovative products and services that are good for them and good for the environment. But consumers haven’t completely bought into this yet. A number of green products aren’t flying off the shelves the way companies anticipated. Why is it that the green revolution has taken companies by storm, but not consumers? With the environment at the forefront of consumer concerns, it makes one wonder, why consumers aren’t dropping the bad stuff and buying the good stuff. We build it, but they just won’t come.Why? 

Some products are a big hit with consumers – the Prius and CFL light bulbs are taking off in a big way. So why aren’t they buying green shoes, food, computers, etc.? 

There are many reasons why people buy certain products and not others – price, functionality, “coolness,” brand loyalty, etc. One often overlooked factor is: how do the environmental aspects of the product help the consumer? 

Let’s first look at why the Prius and the CFL light bulb are so popular. They allow consumers to feel better about themselves when they use these products. A person starts their Prius and immediately feels “greener” than their neighbor with the gas-guzzling SUV. They feel better and more environmentally responsible with every mile they drive. It is the action of driving that makes them “green.” The same goes for a CFL light bulb. They feel better about themselves each and every time they turn on the lights. The simple action of switching on the light enables them to feel like an environmental “activist” – that they are making a difference.  

You said you wanted a green car...

You said you wanted a green car…

The environmental benefit doesn’t come from the company making the Prius or the CFL light bulb. The “goodness” comes from the consumer using the product instead of an alternative product. A Prius isn’t a car – it is an environmental tool for the consumer. The CFL light bulb doesn’t just provide light – it provides the consumer with an opportunity to make a difference through the simple action of flipping the switch. 

The success of these “green” products lies in enabling the consumer to take action. The act of making a difference through using these products makes them successful. So many green failures can be traced back to lacking this fundamental element – allowing consumers to feel “green” each time they use a product. When all the “goodness” is in the making of the product and not in the using of the product, no other action is expected from the consumer. The only action the consumer needs to take is buying the product. But the act of buying is not perceived as an act of environmental activism. This doesn’t allow the consumer to feel that they are taking environmental action. 

Buying a green product, that’s green qualities are all in the production phase, leaves the consumer with a very basic question: what about me? 

You want to sell a green product? Then let your consumer be part of the “greenness.” Give them something that they can do apart from just buying the product. Give them a way to take action. Let it be easy – like starting a Prius or flipping a light switch. Give consumers simple actions that make them feel like they are making a difference each and every time they use your product. Let them be part of the change.

But what about those products that can’t make consumers feel that they are part of the green actions – that don’t turn them into “green activists” purely through the use of the product? Here companies need to be a little more subtle in their approach…

David Connor made me think of the role between a company and its consumers. David is one of a handful of people I admire for their thinking and pushing Sustainability/CSR forward. A true leader in the field. It helps that he is a fellow Liverpool supporter as well… You must follow him on Twitter (@davidcoethica) and bookmark his blog for regular reading – David Coethica’s Blog. Great guy and great CSR/Sustainability strategist.

In a recent blog he explores the relationship between a company and the consumer. What role should the company play in promoting sustainable products to consumers? Should a company put sustainability at the front and center of their communications to consumers? Should companies educate consumers about their impact and sustainability?

Well, if you are selling a Prius or a CFL lightbulb it might help. But even then you have to be very, very careful. The Prius struggled initially to get a foothold in the UK market. Why? Because they tried to sell it as the environmental car. So a few environmentalist bought the car but not too many others. They changed tactics and sold the car as a cool car for the younger crowd with some fuel efficiency thrown in to seal the deal. Bang – they were up and running. See the difference? They didn’t try to sell a green car as the primary reason the second time around.

Once you move away from the Prius example it gets even more complicated.

David argues that companies should do more to provide consumers with more information and education. The problem is that most consumers are very specific about what they want, why they want it and when they want it. Now remember, neither David or I are the average consumer. We work in sustainability and tend to be more sensitive to these issues. The average consumer shows no or little interest. They’ll tell us they will buy a green product and they may pay a premium. The truth is more complicated than that. We just don’t see them flocking in huge numbers to buy green products. (More on this in a future blog – consumer behaviour and movement towards sustainable products are evolutionary and not revolutionary. They move slow but steady in that direction in most cases.)

But the average consumer want their coffee when they go to Starbucks, boots when they go to Timberland etc. They don’t want you to complicate their need and want by telling them about all the “other stuff” when their need and want is clear. That’s the quickest way to alienate the average consumer.

Let me show you a funnel I created to try to make the point:

When you talk to the group on the left you can be as detailed as you want. They know the stuff and they are interested in it. However, when talking to the group on the far right you need to know that the majority of people fall in this area and are not interested in the “added baggage” of sustainability. They just want their “stuff”.

Companies must be careful to balance their engagement with consumers to both the topic that is relevant and the place where it is relevant. This is at the heart of “shared value” (there, I said it!) – don’t preach and don’t oversell, rather empower subtly. Companies must remember to keep the “act” part of what they do separate from the “talking” part. Do what you have to do as a company to be sustainable and have it embedded in the business – but don’t confuse that with what you talk about when engaging consumers. They don’t care about all the detail – only “what can I do and keep it simple”. And… “Give me my stuff!”

The easiest and most effective way to empower consumers is to not actually tell them they are being more sustainable. Be so subtle that they don’t even know they are becoming more sustainable. You can tell them later and give them a nice surprise. Draw them down the funnel from “I just want my stuff” on the right to “what’s your sustainability strategy” on the left.

This way the company can focus on their sustainability as it benefits the company and society (and the environment) – the doing part – and help consumers become more sustainable without them knowing it. An example – Starbucks can tell the consumer about where they get their coffee and how they source it all they want but the average consumer just want their cup of Starbucks. So Starbucks have great sourcing practices but sell the consumer their coffee and sometimes tell them subtly that it’s a damn fine cup of coffee on more than just taste level. It confirms the purchasing decision already made instead of driving new sales. It builds customer loyalty instead of new customers. That’s how most consumers think and act.

Keeping with the Starbucks example – what consumer do care about is the place where they share an impact with Starbucks. In their case it is the cup. They don’t really care how the coffee was sourced or if the building is LEED certified or not. They care about what to do about the cup once they’ve had their coffee. So Starbucks helps them recycle and encourages them to use tumblers. They can try to educate the consumer about sustainability and how the consumer can be more sustainable but the reaction from the majority of consumers will be, “What are you on about, dude? Just give me my damn coffee!”

The lesson from this is for companies to focus on that area where they have a “shared value” with the consumer. Where they have a mutual responsibility or an impact they share. For the electronics industry this is about “what the heck do I do with my old stuff?” This is especially true in a world where electronics are becoming another commodity for consumers to replace and dispose with ease. The “shared value” (said it again!) is companies empowering the consumer to dispose of the product in an easy way at the point of purchase. Their key consumer focus should therefore be about making recycling as easy as possible.

Recycling might not be the sexiest sustainability topic but it is, in most cases, still the most relevant one from a consumer experience perspective. Boring for those on the left of the funnel but actionable and empowering for those on the right of the funnel. It’s one of few places where you share an impact and a responsibility with the consumer.

The next step is helping consumers make the right choice. There are so many gadgets out there today – how do you choose the right one? By going to a store and asking the person behind the counter what is the best choice for them. What product fit their specific need. This can’t be done online as there are just too many factors and too many different products. Trying it online will alienate the consumer quickly. Even those companies who have sustainability as part of their brand knows that you can’t do it online. The rule of online commerce is “keep the clicks to a minimum”. Comapnies such as Timberland, Starbucks, M&S etc keep the purchasing easy and uncomplicated. It’s a different ballgame when they are in your store nthough. By empowering your employees you can help the consumer become more sustainable by matching their need with the right product. How is this more sustainable? By helping them make the right choice you ensure that they won’t replace it as easilyor quickly because the product match their need. You don’t sell them a car if they really only wanted a t-shirt…

Note, in neither of these cases do we even need to mention the word sustainability or CSR. “Hey Mr Consumer, let me help you pick the right product to match your need.” It’s sustainability disguised as good customer service! Don’t “educate” your consumer. This feels like preaching to them and they smell through the bull pretty easy. Or they will get alienated by the overload of information when all they wanted was their “stuff”. Educating consumers about sustainability is overrated in my eyes. (So much is going on in educating the consumer that we’re in danger of creating white noise where no one hears anything anymore.) Focus on the relationship you have with them and focus on your mutual responsibility. Don’t use big word. Make it easy. Once they are in the habit of expecting these then you can tell them what you two just did jointly and pull them down the funnel into a new world of sustainable opportunities.

In conclusion – the most effective way to share sustainability with the average consumer is by making it easy for them and not always telling them (or preaching to them) that they are involved in any form of sustainability. It should just become part of their daily purchasing actions without them even knowing it. That’s the one side of the funnel – the consumer side. When talking to people on the other side – the influencers – then it is okay to show how these play out and how the company thinks. But influencers (me included) are not the average consumer and need a different approach.

This is not what David fear – “Am I the only person that is scared that far too many retailers are waiting for consumers to dictate the sustainability revolution?” It is being smart in how you pull them into sustainability. It’s talking their language, understanding their purchasing habit and making sustainability part of their decisions without knocking them over the head with it. It’s subtle but effective. It changes habits and expectations without them knowing it. It’s like teaching a baby to speak or walk. They can’t remember who did helped them and no one said “walk or talk” to them. We taught them these new skills without them knowing we were doing it. And they haven’t dropped these taught behaviours and actions – it becamse part of their lives. And they will teach others to do the same one day.

I don’t think David will necessarily disagree with me. But I think we need to be very careful when we talk to consumers about sustainability. The last thing you want is them to say you are greenwashing or alienate them because of the overload of information. Remember why they come to you in the first place – to get their “stuff”. Help them pick the right stuff to fit their needs and help them dispose of it responsibly. And they don’t even need to know you are doing it to be sustainable or help them be more sustainable. It changes the way they act without them even knowing it. They will become more sustainable without even knowing it. Now that is sustainability.

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Okay, so I don’t really want you to buy a blowup doll. Not even a green one. But it seems as if we think consumers will buy anything green – or rather that a green product will have an edge over competing not-so-green products. Consumers might be more interested in the environmental factors of a product than before, but it is hit and miss. Not every green product will have an edge over competitors. Consumers are still driven by a myriad number of decision making filters when they decide to buy something.

We are told price always counts as number one. Not really. Functionality is generally number one. People buy something because they can use it and expect it to have certain functions. It’s not the only filter they use, but it is a central one. You won’t buy a car if you really want a kettle. Yes, you might be able to boil some water on the engine, but I bet you that’s not why you want the FJ Cruiser. It must be able to do something for you – something you want done. It might be practical (like a kettle) or something more emotional (like a FJ Cruiser). But it will have some function.

Price is important. A $1.99 won’t buy you that meal at Uno’s, but might get you something at McDonald’s. But would you still go there if you had $50 to blow on a meal? That’s an awful lot of Big Macs. You buy what you can afford – or what your credit limit can afford.

Look, feel and ‘coolness’ are other factors that people will use as filters. These are just a few in a very long list, but consumers tend to think through these in a split second. It’s not a conscious tick-box approach. It’s just something we are conditioned to use. That’s why ads try and link into our filters – it’s cool, it’s functional, and it will make you unbelievably attractive – don’t you want hair like that?

And now mainstream consumers are getting a bit more interested in the green factor as well. It still needs to be functional, but people generally want to know that it doesn’t come with a chunk of earth lost forever. And it is easy for consumers to make that choice when the green factor comes at no or little price difference – and when the environmental impact (or guilt) comes with the product. Buying a hybrid – easy, you know the impact that your car will have and you might just as well buy it if is functional enough, cool enough, at the right price etc. Same with light bulbs and food. No harm done – and generally not enough to hurt the wallet.

But what about diamonds or houses or clothes? There is a hidden guilt in these type of products. And our other needs will override our need to be greener. We know that we are already guilty of blowing money when we buy a diamond. Telling them that it is not green or that it comes from conflict areas won’t stop them from buying it. It’s a Tiffany’s ring and she wants it – we can just hope that Tiffany’s care enough for both of us. And forking out a lifetime of savings to buy or build a house makes you feel bad enough already. It’s the biggest investment you will make in your lifetime, but you will still blow an obscene amount of money – don;t even think of what you could have done with that money (Red Sox season tickets, a trip to Disney for the kids, Tiffany’s ring, and still have enough for the FJ Cruiser). And for that amount of money you want the best quality at the best price – and you really don’t care if it is green or not. Yes, you’ll tinker around the edges – if you have the luxury to spend a few bucks more to make it green. But in most cases you just want to save some money before you go bankrupt – and move the family in before the in-laws kick you out.

And clothes? It’s got to be either the hottest new brand or cheapest alternative – depending on where you stand on fashion and being cool. Either way, you don’t care much about the green factor of your clothes – you just want to wear it. Great if it is green, but don’t expect the brand or price factor to be influenced by the green factor. And we also know that there is a high probability that someone was exploited somewhere to ensure you have these clothes to wear. So who cares whether it is green or not – people already suffered making your clothes and you just switch off the guilt button when buying the clothes in the first place.

Green factors will continue to play a role – and hopefully more each day. But people will still buy what they want to buy at the price they want to pay. And sometimes they will pay a bit more for something that is green. Or buy an alternative brand if it is greener but still functional, cool and at the right price. But sometimes green will mean nothing. Not when we have so many other things to worry about – who made it, how many people got hurt or killed making it. We just switch off when it comes to certain products. Thinking about the impact on people or the planet would be too much for the average consumer to think about. Just keep Pandora’s box closed thank you.

So, don’t expect anyone to think about the environmental impact of blowup dolls soon? No one is worried whether Candy was made with renewable energy and made of recycled plastic.

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Okay, I doubt hell is actually eco-friendly. I think their climate has already changed dramatically. Apparently it’s hot in there. Maybe even more than just simple plain old global warming? Anyway…

This “eco-friendly” stuff really gets to me. Every single day we are bombarded by someone telling us to be more eco-friendly in our lives and in the choices we make. But can we really be eco-friendly?

Maybe the problem starts with what we define as eco-friendly. Do we mean something that is good for the environment or something that is just less bad than the alternative? Too often we are told something is eco-friendly when it is really only eco-friendlier than the alternative. For instance, anything made out of plastic will have an impact on the environment – even the biodegradable stuff. In fact, almost everything uses resources and will have a negative impact on the environment. So it can’t really be eco-friendly. Right? Or can it?

You drive a hybrid – is that eco-friendly? Not in a million years would you suck on the exhaust pipe – it still has some bad stuff blowing out that old metal pipe. Give me a C… Give me an O… And another O… What do you get? Anyway, it is just better than the alternative Hummer.

You’ve changed your light bulbs – does that make you a tree hugger? Hum, it still uses electricity that will most likely not be from a renewable source. And don’t forget the bad stuff insight that “green” light… Ever heard of mercury?

You eat organic foods – makes you feel green doesn’t it? Hope you planted that yourself because they don’t get to the shop or your house via wind power you know. No matter how many beans you eat…

But it doesn’t mean that these things won’t be more positive for old mister bunny rabbit down in the woods. Or something better for the kids playing in the park. It’s just that we will have an impact on the environment – whether we want to or not. We won’t be able to go back to the “good old days” when everything was green and lions roamed the streets (hopefully Will Smith was only acting). And I don’t think we want to either. People want their stuff – tv, fridge, dishwasher, computer etc. I know I want a bigger telly one day. Angelina looks so much better on a bigger screen. Anyway… And even if they don’t want this level of technology – remember, even books don’t come with a zero impact. Trees being chopped down and all that ink…

It’s more about achieving some sort of balance. Nature has always healed itself. Trees provide us with oxygen, oceans clean oil spills, chickens have eggs (and eggs have chickens). We will run out of some things – oil and coal to name a few. But that’s okay, we’ll find new ways to travel and heat up. We always have and, hopefully, always will.

While being eco-friendlier won’t make a tree hug us, it will allow for the tree to continue to grow. And it’s the little things that can make a difference. Cut your emissions by turning the lights off when you don’t really need it. Save water by taking more showers than baths. (Remember the “Share A Shower” campaign? Maybe we should start that again…) Save on electricity and water by not filling the kettle to the top when you really only need a cup of water for your coffee – or tea if you’re from England. Find your own little thing to adapt or change – and don’t give up living at the same time. It won’t change the world overnight, but it will all add up if we all become a little eco-friendlier.

Being eco-friendlier will give the environment the time it needs to heal itself. The problem right now is that we are getting to a stage where the time needed by nature for healing can’t keep up with the pace of our (and nature’s own) impact. Be a little friendlier and give nature a bit more time. Even if you don’t like nature, remember it serves as a central place for human life. We won’t make it if we didn’t have the trees, the animals, the water. No shelter, no food, no beer. Think about that last one… Can you really live without that?

But don’t be all starry eyed about nature either. Remember, nature isn’t human-friendly. If a branch falls it doesn’t check if you moved the car. If a forest burns it doesn’t check if your house is in the way. If a volcano explodes it doesn’t check if the villagers moved out in time. If a lion hunts it doesn’t check if you can run faster. It does what it does. It is what it is. We shouldn’t park under the tree. We shouldn’t build in fire prone areas. We shouldn’t stay so close to the volcano. We shouldn’t live so close to the lion. But we do because we all share this world – and sometimes we are just plain stupid or have no alternative. And anyway, we rule the world and they don’t. Live with it.

But if you insist on being eco-friendly – some advice… Go bury yourself out in the woods. You will have minimum impact, except for the disturbed soil and life cycle of the shovel. But you will be eco-friendly – pushing up daisies. I’ll be eco-friendlier and water the plants. With a watering can. It’s eco-friendlier than a hose.

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The capitalist have left the building. We just can’t find them anymore. Everyone seems to be a social entrepreneur (when they aren’t green investors). Do-gooders with with spreadsheets as they are called. People who take a social need and turn it into a business.

And we have some classic examples to look up to. Aussie Nic Frances whose group, Easy Being Green, plans to cut carbon emissions in Australian households over the next 10 years. The business? He hands out free low-energy light bulbs and low-flow shower heads in return for the rights to trade the carbon emissions the equipment will save. Nic sells the carbon credits to industry, and is now aims to take his business global.

Isaac Durojaiye runs a franchise in Africa. In a continent where children die from diarrhea from bad sanitation, Isaac supplies mobile toilets to slum areas and young people run the franchise in the slum. They keep 60 percent and the rest goes to Isaac. And Africa is a large continent with a huge market to expand the franchise.

Bottom line (no pun)? Their business address a social need AND they make money from the enterprise. Of course, they put more money back into the business to buy more light bulbs or more toilets – a typical business expansion strategy of investing back into your business for expansion. And I am sure they take enough to ensure they don’t suffer too much.

But there are other classic examples of social entrepreneurs. Another classic example of a business idea that started with a focus on a social need and expanded this globally? Wal-Mart. Sam Walton started with a very basic idea of offering the community what they needed and wanted straight after the Second World War – stores that offer goods at the lowest possible prices and that stayed open later during key holidays. He passed on the saving he made from buying from lowest priced suppliers to his customers. A basic social need of the time developed into a business model social entrepreneurs have duplicated ever since – give people what the need at a price they can afford. If it works, give it to more people.

At the heart of almost every large business lies the social entrepreneur. Timberland started from the idea of giving working people a set of work boots they can afford and that will protect them from the elements they have to face in their work. McDonald’s from giving people, who work long hours and earn low wages, quick and cheap food they can have ‘on the run’. Pfizer from the simple need to make medicine taste better. The Home Depot from the need to give people the tools and skills to do the DIY job themselves. These companies were all started by social entrepreneurs.

The challenge for most companies is to remember why they started in the first place and ask themselves – are we still serving a social need? And for our future growth – what social need can we serve to continue to grow as a company, still be socially relevant and needed by society. And no one said you only had to serve one single social need through your business. There is no reason why you can’t give people goods at an affordable price, lower your environmental impact, and provide your workers with health care and pension. Ask Tesco’s, the Body Shop, Ben & Jerry’s or Starbucks – they continue to do that. (By the way, you don’t have to like any of these companies. None of them are perfect. Not even Nick and Isaac will go through life without making a mistake).

Now, if only I can find a social need to package and sell it like Nic and Isaac. Oh, I don’t know – maybe a pill to end poverty, a drink that will end hunger, a shoe that provides shelter, a lipstick for good health, or crops that will end abuse.

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