Makower, editor of Greenbiz.com, does what he preaches. He has spent the last 20 years advising companies on green strategies and marketing and has authored books such asThe Green Consumer and The E-Factor: The Bottom Line Approach to Environmentally Responsible Business.
Makower has woven together a series of short, factoid-laden, wit-tinged chapters, which ramble through a variety of green-centric topics such as the many shades of green consumers to the lowdown on labels to the new “energy” companies. He provides insights into efforts by Coca-Cola and Levi Straus to Timberland, GE, and others that show us what they have done right and lessons learned.
And he poses a lot of questions along the way such as :
•How do you make sense of a world in which green hopes far outweigh green habits?
•Should you focus on what looks good to outsiders or what really matters in terms of your company’s impacts and potential to create value?
•Do you cater to short-term expectations or dig in for the long-term, even if you have to take some financial hits along the way?
The green opportunities for businesses of all sizes are numerous, but it’s a complex playing field that hasn’t found its footing since the hoopla that surrounded the first Earth Day — 18 years ago.
Back then, “it seemed like a floodgate of greener products was about to open,” Makower writes. “Large consumer product companies such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever were dipping their corporate toes into the green waters, with the expectation they would eventually dive in.” Fully 26% of all household products introduced in 1990 boasted a green claim, according to the Marketing Intelligence Service, which tracks product launches. “We could smell change coming,” Makower remembers.
It didn’t. One problem was that many of the products didn’t live up to their hype, he writes, and labeling claims were found to be inaccurate, unverifiable, or simply meaningless, he recalls.
Ouch. Part of the problem, of course, was that many of the terms being used — safe, earth-friendly, nontoxic, organic, and natural — had no legal or generally accepted definitions.
And that’s still a drawback. “The lack of a uniform standard, or set of standards, defining environmentally responsible companies means that anyone can make green claims, regardless of whether their actions are substantive, comprehensive, or even true,” Makower writes. That has made consumers cynical and made it hard for companies that really are environmental leaders.
Pocketbook environmentalism, for instance, is powerful, Makower writes. If marketers can help consumers understand the hidden costs in products and services that are not environmentally friendly, such as incandescent light bulbs or inefficient cars, they can grab consumers’ attention.
And it’s possible these days to steer clear of re-inventing the green wheel. “Over the years, I have been struck by companies’ willingness to share what they’ve learned, even among competitors, ” he writes.
For the core elements of how to create a green strategy, Makower taps the wisdom of his colleagues at GreenOrder, a sustainable business strategy firm, whose clients have included General Electric, Office Depot and Pfizer.
Some basic steps include showing credibility by backing up your company’s performance with provable facts and figures that match its green rhetoric. It doesn’t need to appear in ads, product labeling, or point-of-purchase information, but it should be at least on product fact sheets or websites. Interestingly, he notes that one of the main reasons to do this is for your employees. “They’re the first group that needs assurance that any claims you make hold water,” Makower counsels.
Next, green initiatives aren’t worth a thing, if they don’t make business sense. “Often green is the first thing to go when times get tough,” Makower writes. Be sure to show that sustainability initiatives have reduced costs and boosted revenue by creating new markets, adding new products, and deepening loyalty with customers.
And a company needs to demonstrate that its green efforts somehow set it apart from its competitors. Admittedly, it’s getting harder than ever to differentiate as more companies have green projects underway. That said, you don’t have to be doing more than anyone else, but rather something that is distinct, Makower explains. A small company might be able to do this with a single action like locating in a certified green building.
It’s not just the climate that is pressing for serious environmental changes in the way businesses operate. “A host of other issues — the availability of water, toxic ingredients in consumer products, and the rampant growth of electronic waste, to name just three — will continue to plague companies and society for decades,” Makower points out.
Moreover, around the world, political leaders are realizing that this isn’t a topic that will go away and, in fact, it’s gaining ground rapidly.
And more and more suppliers are being pressed to take green action. Wal-Mart, for example, is “pushing its 60,000 suppliers to perform all sorts of sustainability somersaults,” he reports. “Corporations and institutional buyers of a wide range of products are looking upstream for solutions, asking suppliers to, variously, reduce packaging, eliminate hazardous materials, use more organic or bio-based ingredients, and take other measures to green up their products and operations.”
Finally, the clean-tech boom is making it easier for companies “to transform their products, processes, and performance to use more renewable energy, bio-based or lightweight materials and fewer toxic ingredients,” he writes. And as they roll out, that will make possible a wide range of new green business opportunities.
So do consumers really care? They do, Makower insists. Bridging the gulf, however, between green concern and green consumerism — that’s the test of success.
“Strategies for the Green Economy: Opportunities and Challenges in the New World of Business,” by Joel Makower with market research by Cara Pike; McGraw-Hill, 290 pages, $27.95.