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Sustainable, Green... What Does It Mean?

by Mario Vellandi  |  
October 15, 2008

With all the hype and rallying going around these couple topics, there's a lot of misconceptions on what they mean.

Green relates to environmental and biological health impacts.
Social Responsibility relates to taking or refraining from action that promotes or protects the well-being of individuals, communities, and nature whether the party's relationship to recipient(s) are direct, indirect, or none.
Economics relates to financial viability in terms of costs, benefits, and strategic fit with short and long term goals.
Sustainability encompasses the longevity of green, social responsibility, and economics.
Allow me to stress that sustainability relates to proportionally maintaining defined levels of being or status, as variable factors change over time. How those levels are defined will determine the positive/negative degree of current or projected levels of sustainability.
The major difficulty lies with defining what acceptable and desired levels are (strategy), and how to meet them (tactics). Every party wants to maximize the benefits and scenarios valuable to them, yet constraints and variable factors over time will affect their viability.
So although defining the optimum levels and meaning of the word Sustainable may seem frustrating and nearly impossible, there is some help. Companies, NGOs, and trade associations across nearly every industry are working to share best practices and create standards. To begin understanding the issues of environmental concern and improvement, look at both media publications and associations serving classes of trade (banking, transport, chemical), and organizational functions (communications, product development, IT). With this practical information, you can undertake an audit of your internal operations and amongst your partners to see how 'sustainable' you are.
This is an ongoing process and there's much to be said. However, the point is that understanding sustainability and applying it through initiatives involves traditional internal and external assessments. The powerful magic underneath it all is promoting innovation and continuous long as there exists sufficient considered value in the triple bottom line of ecological, social, and economic impact. That is where marketing comes in: defining, creating, communicating, delivering, and measuring value.
Before wading in these philosophical waters any further, I'd like to explain why this discussion is important. The days of being humble and silent about one's sustainability initiatives are over. Ecological health and social responsibility are becoming stronger societal values. People increasingly want to purchase from and work for organizations whose actions support causes they find relevant and appealing. This has created huge opportunities for branding and differentiation. But to effectively reach and connect with your audiences, whether activists or apathetics, marketing must be properly deployed to define and communicate an expanded organizational image and value proposition that is credible.

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People have called me talented, multicultural, and "deep", but I prefer to think in terms of caring. Pursuing excellence. Connecting emotionally with audiences. Being profitable. Creating a better world through social and environmental responsibility.

These are the passions that drive me to help organizations. Marketing is the backbone - Innovation is the spirit.

It all began with a few mid-size consumer product manufacturers in housewares and personal care, selling to a variety of retailers across America. Big name department stores, discounters, supermarkets, name it. But our product lines were anything but static. To win retailers' business while working in small teams with in-house and 3rd party sales agents entails wearing many hats. Developing marketing collateral, co-designing new products and displays, visiting buyers and their stores, building pricing structures, managing sales pipelines, and compiling logistical data were my day-to-day activities. Following this, I went to a product development firm where I did market research, writing, and graphic design for print and online.

Since early 2008, I've been helping clients develop marketing solutions through writing and video for permanent online promotion.

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  • by Ted Mininni Wed Oct 15, 2008 via blog

    Hi Mario, Welcome to the Fix, buddy. Great to have you posting here. Thanks for your post, BTW. It should help clarify some important terms and concepts. As you point out: when organizations and industries come together to establish defintions, parameters and standards, then we can all be on the same page and work to achieve some meaningful goals.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Wed Oct 15, 2008 via blog

    Great post. To me sustainable means can you keep it going long-term? That is, for you and for future generations. This can be macro level: are our systems sustainable? Or on the micro (very specific) level: is reliance on oil for transportation sustainable? Personally, I like market mechanisms to move us toward sustainability that is why I say vote, vote, vote with your dollars. Do not rely on politicians as they are not reliable.

  • by Mario Vellandi Wed Oct 15, 2008 via blog

    @Ted Thanks for the welcome. This intro post really takes a macro perspective of things. Green by itself is a trickier subject as in the case of energy efficiency it implies less power consumption whether or not it comes from renewable resources. Standards are very helpful, so long as they're consensus-based and the bar is set high. That fosters competition and excellence. @Neil Sustainable to me also largely means long-term, from a triple bottom line perspective. Everything is interconnected, therefore there's a responsibility to not only 'do no harm', but also to promote well-being. Sustainability is enabled through purchasing (voting with dollars) and personal/org habits on one end, but I believe there's a large role for regulation to force industries to comply with acceptable minimum standards.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Wed Oct 15, 2008 via blog

    Agreed, Mario, agreed. Just look at China. What a train wreck. It is partly because they have the attitude of grow, grow, grow, the costs be damned. They do not regulate the environment, food safety, etc., with any degree of competence. Maybe this latest milk fiasco will be the impetus for a working Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, etc., in China. And for those who oppose regulation here, maybe they could see that for capitalism to work smoothly there must be regulation. Just like a football game would be a fiasco with weak rules and without competent refs to enforce the rules.

  • by Scott Monty Thu Oct 16, 2008 via blog

    Thank you, Mario. You said it perfectly. It should be every company's duty to share what it's doing to support a sustainable business model. The problem larger companies will have in being less humble about their efforts is that they'll naturally be viewed as greenwashers by the skeptics. It's my hope that at Ford, we'll be able to demonstrate a long-standing commitment to sustainability in everything we do, which should give us some credibility. We're working on other ways to share our stories as well. Scott Monty Global Digital Communications Ford Motor Company

  • by Matt Rebeiro Thu Oct 16, 2008 via blog

    Interesting post which left me with two thoughts: 1. Whilst I agree that promoting green and sustainable CSR is increasingly important to brands and companies I wonder whether such concern will receed as consumers are hit (and hit hard) in the global financial crisis. It's not unlikely that as consumers tighten their belts companies will (be forced) to abandon sustainability and green business practices to win customers on price, not ethics. 2. If, in spite of the global financial crisis companies still consider it in their long term interests to be green and sustainable (and goodness how I hope they do!), then I think what we'll end up seeing is a lot more collaborative projects where companies come together to share IP around green and sustainable technology and business practices. Here i'm thinking about the IBM led initiative run by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development called the 'Eco-patents Commons' where around 200 business all share green and sustainable IP. Check it out here: Such an approach to socially reponsible business is great as, in sharing knowledge, companies can innovate at a faster rate AND its more cost effective as the companies involved don't all have the burden of runaway R&D costs at the edge of Moore's Law.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Thu Oct 16, 2008 via blog

    Scott, I am happy to hear that Ford is getting on board with this. I would be incredibly proud of Detroit if it took the lead in the coming years by making high quality, reliable, safe, cars that use the latest technologies to move us away from oil. Whether the next step is plugin hybrids, etc., I expect to see Detroit out in front not lagging behind the Japanese. What I always thought Detroit lacked was the ability to see ahead a few moves on the chess board. That is why more than once, you have been outflanked by the Japanese car makers. Don't let it happen again for your sake and for America's sake. Ford started this whole thing. It is time for Detroit to take the lead again.

  • by Mario Vellandi Thu Oct 16, 2008 via blog

    @Scott The risk of being labeled as greenwashing is strengthened when one touts single attributes in a complex product. @Matt Green/sustainable attributes and initiatives can oftentimes be linked to process efficiencies that consumers wouldn't notice anyway. So if it saves the company money and improves corporate face, it likely won't be axed. I'm familiar with the eco-patent commons and hope that collaborative relationships like these continue to thrive.

  • by Matt Rebeiro Thu Oct 16, 2008 via blog

    Agreed Mario, companies are likely to keep green and sustainable initiatives that result process efficiencies shouldn't companies be making more of an effort to promote such initiatves to consumers. Furthermore such initiatives are even better if they make the company more efficient AND green/sustainable - surely this should be what all companies aspire to?!

  • by Sarah Ewing Thu Oct 16, 2008 via blog

    Hi Matt, We at ShoreBank have actually found that this economic downturn has strengthened our triple bottom line initiatives. The trick to generating sustainability is to inspire your customers to initiate their own sustainable endeavors. For example, ShoreBank measures loans granted to those persons with environmentally sustainable desires, like the Urban GreenHouse. ( They then pay it forward to their friends, etc. In my opinion, that is how a company can exponentially inspire sustainability. It will be interesting to how/if other companies follow suit. Sarah Ewing Online Channel Manager ShoreBank

  • by Pedro Thu Nov 6, 2008 via blog

    As an "authentic marketing" consultant (and first-time blogger here), I hear lots of feedback from skeptics and those who think "green" is just a trend. Many companies have also contributed to this mistrust with subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - "greenwashing claims". True "green marketing" is about making sure you have something to talk about first, not just slapping bogus claims on what you're already doing. (My favorite is "No CFC's" - which have been phased out by EVERYONE.) My advice: follow the news feeds to determine best practices, attend some conferences, get inspired by the pros and then learn how to implement sustainability strategies into your company, campaigns or curriculum. One of my favorites is Sustainable Brands, which I attended this year in Monterey, CA. I'll also be at Sustainable Brands International to learn from the likes of Nike & Interface's Ray Anderson. Also, consumers are a little more "conscious" in the EU so the discussions with successful international green marketers from across the pond should make for a rewarding event.

  • by tedlow Thu Dec 18, 2008 via blog

    There's a great video on San Francisco I Am where hundreds of teens in the Bay Area ditched their video games at home and headed for the biggest green festival in the nation. The Festival was held in San Francisco and the kids learned AND taught one another about climate change and green jobs. Even Chuck D from Public Enemy was there. You can check out the video here:

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