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Responsible Consumption: The Next Frontier in Green Marketing

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How to make your company greener and still profit
  • Four examples of green marketing successes
  • How you and your customer can engage in responsible consumption

The following article is adapted from The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding (Berrett-Koehler, February 2011).

Is Tom's of Maine toothpaste really green if consumers leave the water running while they brush their teeth? Is an ENERGY STAR-rated light bulb really green if it remains on after everyone leaves the room?

It is one thing to design a product to be greener, but the negative environmental impact made throughout a product's life-cycle cannot be minimized unless the consumer uses (and disposes of it) responsibly.

"Responsible consumption"—what I consider the next frontier of green marketing—is about conserving resources associated with using products. That includes encouraging consumers to use only what is needed and consciously reduce waste.

Sustainability leaders are striving for the ideal goals of zero waste and zero energy, but we will never get to zero until people learn to responsibly consume and properly dispose of the products they buy.


The Consumer's Role

As any life-cycle assessment will show, consumer usage can account for a significant portion of a product's total environmental impact, especially products such as laundry detergents, soaps, and shampoos that require resources, energy, and water to work.

Manufacturers can design products to make it easier for consumers to minimize resource use, such as a duplex printing feature on a printer, or a dual-flush toilet. Real-time information, such as Toyota's dashboard and the new crop of energy meters and monitoring services, also help. But only consumers can push the "cold" button on the washing machine or turn off the water when they brush.

Industry Incentives

Businesses have lots of incentives to encourage such behavior, and some already are pioneering innovative ways to enlist consumer support. That's because, when markets fail to address environmental ills, governments tend to intervene. Witness mandated shifts to energy-, fuel-, and water-efficient appliances, light bulbs, and cars. Will cold-water, laundry detergents, organic cotton, and leather-free shoes be next?

Another issue that industry needs to be mindful of is "the rebound effect"—whereby consumers will buy or use more of a product if it costs less due to enhanced efficiency. A classic example of that is fuel-efficient cars that are driven more miles than less-efficient cars.

Enlisting consumer support for responsible consumption is a surefire way to build credibility and reduce risk. Consumers intuitively understand that it is not possible to spend our way out of the environmental crisis. At the micro level, simply switching one supermarket-cartful of "brown" products with "green" ones will not cure environmental ills. Creating a sustainable society requires (among other things) that every one of us use only what we need and that we help recapture resources for successive use by recycling and composting.

Lessons Learned From Sustainability Leaders

As I learned when advising HSBC on its award-winning "No Small Change" green marketing campaign, a key to the campaign's credibility was empowering people and businesses to reduce their carbon footprint, in line with the bank's own efforts. In other words, we weren't asking HSBC's customers to do anything the bank hadn't done itself.

Sustainability leaders are now winning their stakeholders' respect by communicating the need to consume responsibly, especially in energy use. For starters, HP earned the No. 1 spot on Newsweek's list of the top green companies of 2009 by pledging to reduce product emissions and energy usage 40% from 2005 levels by 2011. Realizing that it needs to partner with consumers to reach that goal, the company has launched its Power to Change campaign, which encourages users to turn off their computers when they do not need them (e.g., at night) and tracks actions to calculate energy and carbon impact.

Another example is Levi Strauss & Co., which teamed up with Goodwill to educate consumers on how to lower the life-cycle impacts of blue jeans. The company's "A Care Tag For The Planet" campaign uses online and in-store messaging, and a new care tag on jeans, to encourage owners to wash in cold water, line dry when possible, and donate their jeans (when they're no longer wanted) to Goodwill thrift stores. The company estimates that such steps by responsible consumers can reduce life-cycle climate-change impacts in half.

Similarly, in Europe, Procter & Gamble's Ariel runs a Turn to 30 (degrees centigrade) campaign to encourage consumers to wash at lower temperatures. Spurred by the threat of regulation, the laundry detergent industry has united to promote responsible washing. And an industrywide Washright campaign launched in 1998 by the Brussels-based International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE) reached 70% of European households with tips on how to wash laundry in environmentally preferable ways.

A final example is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which now knows that peer pressure is an excellent strategy for promoting responsible consumption—and may be even more motivating than saving money.

In a test that began in April 2008, some 35,000 randomly selected customers were told via "happy" or "sad" faces (printed on their monthly utility bills) how their energy use compared with that of their neighbors and the most-efficient energy users in the district. Customers who received the information cut their electricity use 2%, compared with no change by counterparts who did not receive messages. The utility expanded the program to 50,000 households in August 2009.


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Jacquelyn Ottman is an expert adviser on green marketing to Fortune 500 companies and the US government. She is author of four books on the subject; her latest is The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools, and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding. (Berrett-Koehler, February 2011).

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  • by Let Kermit be Green Wed Mar 30, 2011 via web

    Does this mean hair shirts will become fashionable?

  • by TP Wed Mar 30, 2011 via web

    More drivel than substance.

  • by The B&B Coach Tue Apr 5, 2011 via web

    Re: TP's comment - it's all about knowing who your market is. As a B&B owner, I am privileged to host many people from overseas countries who find North American attitudes to energy costs and water usage repugnant. In addition, there is a whole niche market of younger, more environmentally people who understand the risks and are willing to pay more staying at an environmentally friendly B&B. I think this provides great ideas not only for bed and breakfast owners to use in their own practices, but to consider when promoting their product.

  • by Owen Frager Thu Apr 7, 2011 via web

    Check out EarthChamps.com. This is the kind of program that can accomplish these goals.

  • by Ray kunle Fri Apr 8, 2011 via web

    Good day, these a nice and bright idea, please can we transfer this idea to Africa, i mean, can America and European companies in africa like Procter & Gamble's Ariel do the same?

  • by Sabita Dutta Sun Oct 7, 2012 via web

    Product uses help lot in messaging consumers or users.The new suggestive message of NOKIA phone is great when your phone is fully charged, it says 'save energy'. This strategy will help learning of consumers. A combined effort is necessary to bring 'green practices'. There's urgent need to bring consumer awareness through these suggestive uses as adopted by NOKIA

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