Saving the world through purchasing – It isn’t easy being “green”

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May 9, 2013 by Tamara Piety

I came across this piece in The Guardian. Young Consumers Hold the Key to Sustainability. It reads like the usual PR fluff. Indeed, it has a lot in common with my last post from CJR, that is it appears to be sponsored content. Like that one, this is a feature from The Guardian’s “sponsor” in its “sustainable Business Partner Zone” – what exactly that means is unclear. The thrust of the piece seems to be that marketers should take environmental marketing seriously because young consumers do so. Because marketers are ultimately not responsible for business practices which might make production “greener,” only talking about it, what seems clear from this piece is that it is a call to engage in more green marketing because millennials “want brands to be environmentally friendly and ethical,” and want brands “to connect with a cause or social issue.” “These young people,” we are told, “could be the key for global action and are eager to collaborate with business. Indeed, at least 80% of global millennials have acted in support of a brand they trust and more than half would volunteer to test new products from these trusted brands.”

That sounds like a description of a market ready to be exploited. And I think “exploited” is the right word because marketers don’t make the decisions about production processes that would make a difference to the carbon footprint of a product or to its “greenness” (whatever that means). All marketers can do is sell what they have. And as the article notes, they are very good at that. “Marketers are incredibly effective at persuading consumers to do and buy things.” Indeed they are.

Here is the pitch: “They [marketers] need to be encouraged to use that full arsenal of persuasion to get the consumer to behave differently. Indeed marketers could make the radical difference that companies need.” That is right — marketers — the people making the “radical difference that companies need.” Notice the piece says “that companies need,” not that the world or the environment needs. There is a reason for this. The raison d’etre of marketing is to sell stuff.  A news flash is that selling more stuff is somewhat, if not entirely inconsistent with saving the environment. What this predictably leads to is greenwashing.

Perhaps this is the “clunkiness” that the article refers to when it discusses “green” marketing (or for that matter any sort of social consciousness issue). “Astonishingly, recent analysis for TerraChoice in The Sins of Greenwashing looked at environmental claims for 5,296 different consumer products and found that more than 95% made at least one false claim; commonly, claims could not be readily or reliably substantiated.” Imagine that! Companies might be making false claims about their products! It is a little like Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca being “shocked” to discover that gambling was going on.

It is not astonishing at all. It is the predictable collision between consumer desires, the absence of meaningful regulation over product claims and a wealth of information about consumers in the hands of an industry which doesn’t control the actual production practices, just the product promotion and which is charged with promoting products, brands and corporate images. In a world in which claims may be unverifiable and you can fool at least some of the people some of the time to the tune of a “critical” amount of profit, it is unsurprising to learn that it happens. In this case, what the millennial consumer (according to the article anyway) wants is to be shown “how sustaining the environment is easy, convenient and beneficial to future generations.”

That might be what they (and all of us) want to hear. That doesn’t mean that it is true. In fact, it is most likely not. But it sounds good.

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