Green May Be Ho-Hum for the Holidays, But It’s Here to Stay

So far, this holiday season has seen a rather muted push on green by retailers, both in terms of the products they sell and the messages they communicate to consumers.  Marshal Cohen, Chief Industry Analyst at NPD Group, recently suggested that such lack of enthusiasm by retailers reflects waning interest in green.  Cohen stated: “It’s basically a card that a lot of people played while it was hot and trendy…and it got overplayed.”  

Indeed, early signs suggest that retailers left their Birkenstocks home for the holidays.  While most retailers are taking steps to green their operations and supply chains, few have taken steps to green the shopping experience.  Reuters recently reported that retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney recognized green as a trend but does not have plans to promote green merchandise this holiday season  (Barneys is apparently a notable exception).  A spokesman for J.C Penney added: “It’s something that is growing in importance with the customer…[but it’s in] its early days.”  

But, could it be the case that after so much hype early in the year, the green trend has faded just as it was getting off the ground? 

Marketing Green believes just the opposite: as a trend, green is just getting started.  Quite simply, the apparent lack of enthusiasm shown by retailers this holiday season reflects the fact that we are still early on the adoption curve.  Here’s why: 

Green products popular today are not necessary gift ready.  Green products that have been adopted by the mass market – including compact florescent light bulbs and hybrid cars – may not make the best stocking stuffers.  Moreover, unlike organic foods, clothes made from organic cotton have not been adopted by the mass market yet.  As such, it is not surprising that we do not see a sudden surge in demand for these items this season. 

Consumers may not equate green with spreading holiday cheer.  When it comes to giving a gift that is overtly green, consumers may worry that they may be perceived by friends and family as the Grinch.   While social norms are changing, being green today is still in many regards a personal virtue rather than societal expectation.  As such, gift-givers may fear that giving a green gift may be perceived by recipients as politicizing the holidays.   

Retailers fear being accused of greenwashing.  Today, few standards are in place to determine how green is green.  Without them, retailers are left to their own devices to determine what is eco-friendly – and, as a result, are left exposed to criticism by outsiders who may think otherwise.  As such, many retailers today are focused more on greening their internal initiatives than greening specific products. 

While interest in green may wax and wane, marketers must remember that we are still in an early adoption cycle for green.  Regardless of how successful this season is for green, as a trend, green is here to stay.  In fact, there are five global influencers that will ensure that as a trend it grows, spreads and matures.  

Changing physical environment.  While the melting of the ice caps may still be an abstract concept for most, consumers are beginning to experience erratic weather patterns that are likely – though not certainly – being caused and/or exacerbated by global warming.   Indeed, Oxfam recently reported that weather-related natural disasters have increased four-fold over the past two decades while geologic-related ones (eg, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc) have remained steady.   Such visible signs will likely increase and intensify with time, providing a constant reminder that something in our world is not in balance.   

Increasingly concerned consumers:  In the US today, consumers have a high awareness of climate change as an environmental concern, but arguably relatively low awareness of the severity of its impact – especially on the poor who are least responsible for its cause but most vulnerable to its adverse affects.  As Hans Verolme, Director of Global Climate Change Programmes for World Wildlife Fund stated, “There’s no escaping the facts: global warming will bring hunger, floods and water shortages.”

Marketers should be prepared that such a realization may cause a sea change in how American consumers view the brands that they purchase.   Americans may be voracious consumers, but they do not like to do so at other people’s expense.  As a consumer issue, therefore, climate change mitigation may be similar to enforcing fair labor laws or worker safety practices  – it is just what you do or risk a backlash from consumers. 

Leadership by business: Some may find it surprising that many global corporations are strong proponents of action on climate change.  Indeed, 150 leading companies – including US multinationals Coca-Cola, GE, Nike, Johnson & Johnson and Sun Microsystems – have already signed a communique on climate change and presented at the UN conference this month in Bali that calls for legally binding targets for carbon emissions. 

So why would global companies lead the charge?  Corporations know that mandates on carbon emissions are inevitable.  The sooner government acts to set acceptable carbon emission levels, the faster business can respond and plan for the future – by modifying capital investment decisions or commercializing new products, for example.  

Moreover, once global emission caps are put into place, standards will be developed within each product category that determine how green is green.  Without standards today, companies decide for themselves to what level they should green their products.  In this situation, the burden is on the consumer to decide how competitive products stack up while leaving well-intentioned companies vulnerable to greenwashing accusations by critics that disagree with their claims. 

Where standards have emerged though, green products have taken off.  One great example is the creation of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification that set standards for green buildings.  The result: 20% growth in green buildings in 2005, followed by 30% growth in 2006.    

Watchdog role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs):  In many ways, NGOs serve as watchdogs for industry on environmental issues.  Today, such organizations enjoy increasing clout, fueled by increased membership and financial backing over the past few years.  More than ever, NGOs are flexing their muscle by challenging corporate activities that they deem as destructive to the environment or deceptive to consumers.   

Interestingly, even companies that are viewed as leaders on green do not get a pass by NGOs when activities are deemed inconsistent with their competitive positioning on green.  For example, despite (or as a result of) earmarking a combined $70 billion toward green investments and loans, both Bank of America and Citigroup were recently the target of a grassroots campaign by Rainforest Action Network to the fact that these banks also fund coal-fired plants, a primary contributor to global warming.    

Today, consumers can also serve as watchdogs as well by rating corporate green activities through sites such as Greenwashing Index, Do the Right Thing and Climate Counts.    

Involvement by governments: Today, there is growing global support for action on global warming.  Signs of this momentum are perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in the US and Australia – two countries that have long been holdouts for global action.  Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a sea change in Australia, as Kevin Rudd, the newly-elected Prime Minister, signed the Kyoto accord as one of his first acts of government.  Moreover, the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted last week for an ambitious 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.   

So, marketers should take note.  Early signs are that green may not bring holiday cheer to retailers. Nonetheless, green marketers should remain steadfast.  Though consumer focus on green may fluctuate, green as a trend is here to stay.  Five key influencers will not only ensure that is the case but accelerate its growth over time.   

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9 Responses to Green May Be Ho-Hum for the Holidays, But It’s Here to Stay

  1. Jill Palermo says:

    Hello David,

    Thanks, your post was really insightful. That’s interesting that retailer fears of being accused of greenwashing is having the effect of corps first tweaking their infrastructure before creating a ‘green shopping experience.’ I think that’s a positive thing and something to be mindful of when it doesn’t seem (from the consumer perspective) that retailers are heavily invested in going green. From your experience working with Fortune 100 companies, do you find there is a genuine desire to be leaders in this change?

    Also, I found this article in the NY Times very interesting. It talks about how embedded giving strategies in retail pricing are affecting non-profits and drawing suspicion from various sectors: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/13/us/13giving.html

    Jill

  2. whats your take on Clorox and their recent purchase of Burt’s Bees in an attempt to go green?

  3. socialbutterfly4change says:

    just ran across your site. Great post, insights and items to take note. I agree about ‘green’ still being in the adoption phase. The word green has taken quite a revolution. Nowadays, some people don’t even know what the word or term green means beyond a possible marketing buzzword. As the trend grows, so will standards and regulations. It will be interesting to see how everything responds. Again, great post!

    Socialbutterfly

  4. EvoSolutions says:

    Thank you for putting together a well balanced look at this topic. We have no choice but to take the higher road. If we want to have a world to live in, Conscious Consumerism will have to become our new vehicle. I posted a brief article I’ve written about this topic on a Squidoo Lens in the hope that it might inspire someone to higher consciousness in consumerism and help them realize their power to change the world. Consumers may be getting bored with the trend of going green, but I’d rather continue to work to educate bored and ignorant people than deal with an international ecological disaster worse than any war we’ve seen in history. I don’t want to be doom and gloom about it, but this is a very real consequence of our actions.

    Ecological and socially conscious consumerism is looking like the next frontier in bringing support to our planet and her people. Government sure isn’t going to do it for us.

    Peace and Blessings,
    Lori

  5. Jay says:

    This is interesting and insightful commentary on the state of “Green” marketing. My company, Powderfin.com, is a small online retailer for outdoor specialty sporting goods in Bozeman, MT. The majority of our vendors make a conscious effort as businesses to become more and more “green” each year. We make our decisions on which products to sell in part on our vendor’s environmental due diligence, and we’re now realizing that we care about this much more that we thought. Initially, we were just doing what we knew was right. Now, we need to embrace the stance and not be afraid to champion and market it. There will always be those who challenge that any business, retail or otherwise can never truly be “green”. One thing that we believe, however, is that we can feel confident doing our part in getting even the simplest environmental messages across, because at this point in our history as consumers on this troubled planet…everyone who cares should be screaming at the top of their lungs.

    Our goal is to offer the best outdoor gear, from the most innovative and environmentally responsible manufacturers in the industry. Is everything we sell “Green”…no, but we’re at least on the right track. The outdoor market is a good place to start in the effort toward educating consumers about product choices, and we’re definitely doing what we can to make progress. With like-minded individuals, organizations, and companies working together on the web (as you’re doing with this post), we feel that an extremely powerful education medium can be established, and real change can not only be expected by few but at some point demanded by millions.

    Now that the economic, social, and global impact of the proliferation of big box stores is being increasingly recognized by people, I can only hope that the pendulum is beginning to swing the other direction in the retail market. We have a long way to go, but if we can do our part to educate people as to what they truly need and (more importantly) do not need, and that they have choices in the market to do business with responsible people…it has to start making sense.

    With hope…

    Jay
    powderfin.com

  6. [...] Today, headlines focus on food shortages and the civil unrest that it has caused in many poor nations.  Corporations that perpetuate food shortages through their activities (eg, competing with local farmers for water rights, promoting the use of biofuels that divert cropland away from food production) may feel the wrath of consumers that use their purchases to express their opinions. (See also Marketing Green’s “Green May Be Ho Hum for the Holidays But It’s Here to Stay”). [...]

  7. stefaniehartman says:

    Its not the question as to how society is responding to the green marketing evolution. But it depends upon every individual, how they would contribute their role in adopting this strategy. Unless people who are aware of the benefits of the greenery system come forward and join hands in working for its progress, society will never change its attitude in adopting this system.

  8. Brandi Veil says:

    Thank you for the article. As trends come and go, greening was a brought awareness to environmental campaigning allowing opportunity for a and create a conscious consumer market to open up. The core of “GREEN EVENTS” model speaks to the moderately knowledgable consumer which is great for bringing awareness. I believe that we are now positing for yet another launch campaign, where the consumer not only consumes that they create a lifestyle out of “GREEN” purchases to step up the lader of sustainability. We are not only consumers, we are individuals seeking to become more aware. Our lifestyle and purchases reflect such awareness. If we are able to continue on this path, more and more we will see a shift in the market place where its not only about the product its about the individual person making the choice. The word GREEN, was a foot in the door, the WORD SUSTAINABLE is a tag–also a foot in the door, but if you look a social activities now we are seeing a trend in the rise of COMMUNITY- CONNECTION. My hope is that Corporate Marketeers create COMMUNITY campaigns around Health and Environment. Corporate campaigns driving not only opportunity for people to come together under the umbrella of environment but come together in a Global-Local Social Change to come together on all levels.

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