Green Product Paradox: When Too Much Good Is Bad for the Environment

October 4, 2010

A common mantra in green marketing is that if you want the masses to buy your product, focus your messaging on more traditional attributes such as price, quality or service.  A product’s “greenness” is likely secondary for many mainstream consumers. For green marketers then, the holy grail may be to offer a product that is competitive on dimensions both traditional and eco-friendly.  This would result in the greatest number of products sold and greatest impact on the environment.

But, things are not always that simple.  Consider the scenario when an innovative green product spurs new demand across an entire product category, rather than just replaces the existing generation of products in market. Is the individual product still green if the aggregate impact of the category is greater than what it replaced? 

Take, for example, household lighting.  Most of us are aware that switching from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs can result in a dramatic reduction in energy use.  But, overall adoption has been relatively modest in comparison to the potential market, likely due to the premium price commanded for the bulbs. 

Today, an even newer generation of lighting technology is on the commercial horizon.  Solid state lighting, described as a “souped up” version of the light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are commonly used today to illuminate electronic displays on alarm clocks and audio equipment, promises to provide lighting at a fraction of the energy used by today’s bulbs.  (“Not Such a Bright Idea”, The Economist, August 26, 2010)  Mass adoption of such technology could have significant implications for the environment given that 6.5% of the world’s energy is used for illumination.

In many ways, we should celebrate such technology fixes given their benefits to the environment.  For marketers, solid state lighting clearly has the potential to be one of those “holy grail products”. Yet, green products such as solid state lighting also present a paradox in that their adoption in mass might actually be detrimental to the environment. How could this be the case?  Well, according to J Y Tsao and colleagues at the Sandia National Laboratory, cheaper lighting that sips energy will likely increase overall demand and uses for light, and with it, overall energy consumption.  (J Y Tsao, et. al., “Solid-State Lighting: An Energy-Economics Perspective”, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, August 19, 2010)

The rationale? Today, Tsao et. al., contends that consumers underconsume indoor light – with current fixtures providing 1/10th of the illumination as ambient outdoor light on cloudy days and 1/60th of ambient outdoor light on sunny ones.  Tsao rationalizes that there is plenty of room to consume more – including in new ways that have yet to be thought of.

As evidence, Tsao et. al., models historical lighting use and adoption rates for new technologies – from gas lanterns to fluorescent bulbs – and extrapolates forward demand based on the amount of light produced (measured in lumens) and cost per lumen.

Historic trends clearly indicate that consumer demand greatly increased when cost dropped and other attributes – such as faster turn on/off and greater cleanliness – expanded lighting uses.  Extrapolating into the future, Tsao et. al., predicts that with solid state lighting, demand has the potential to increase10x by 2030 and with it, perhaps a 2x increase in energy use.  How paradoxical. 

It is important to note that the green product paradox is not isolated to LED lighting.  Increased demand for electric cars, for example, could result in a similar dilemma if the added electricity load needed to power the vehicles is generated using higher polluting coal.

As such, the green product paradox presents quite the challenge for a marketer.  For individual companies, such products can be both profitable and (at least appear) socially responsible.   It is only by looking at the forest from the trees – and perhaps a little into the future – does it become apparent that, in aggregate, such products may, paradoxically, have a negative impact.

A sustainable brand might try itself to mitigate any impact that its products may have.  But, this will only have broad impact if it ultimately compels competitors to follow suit.  Given this, marketers should recognize that a solution to the paradox may not lie within an individual company’s grasp.  Alternatively, it may take an industry consortium to make the necessary product changes or evolve consumer expectations.  Or, it may take collaboration across industries to have lasting impact.  In both examples cited above, a shift to lower-polluting sources for energy generation would mitigate an increase in demand for both products.

Overall, the green product paradox presents a difficult challenge for green marketers.  Doing good for the planet may not always be as a simple as motivating purchase of greener goods.  In some cases, it just might be too much of a good thing.


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