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

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.


18 thoughts on “Green Product Paradox: When Too Much Good Is Bad for the Environment

  1. Greater number of products will put greater number of impacts is true only when the theory is based on wrong strength of ideas. Consumerism must get auto controlled in the concept and idea. The idea and concept must be creative and conciouse and adopting to balance use of external source exploitation with internal source exploitation. From one simplified to next it is always paradoxical and side effect giving.From one balanced and simple to next it is not.
    Let us take the example of chemical to green garment products .In the example Organic natural fibre and dyed only third world poors quality in their present job will get increased.It will help in long to recover true economy for world. The goods are using only 5% matter 95% faith and spirit to produce material dyes and process is important. The live process and organic soap wash used only otherwise wasted sources of sold forest left out.In fact for true creative green goods there are no competition. Plenty of competition exists from one simplified to next.
    Visit our site: for more details on this .
    Profit and product ,it depends upon which one you put first in marketing as well making . Marketing need not be viewed as profit making industry ,fulfillment giving one equally. Basically it is service. This is the quality of idea at the base of the theory of material and market. Spiritual aggression is profit more than just. Monkeys, if you value take only for it’s need, why not man? Man is not centric to this world. The problem is basic idea is to be sound . Sound idea is balanced one and combined use of science and technology and spirit and faith. Human life success is not only satisfaction equally important and vital is fulfillment. If business measures success in fulfillment too the sources earth is abundant and opens unlimited.No pollution Garments are health rich .Our next generation will not inherit loss like we have inherited .

    Indigo,( natural dye) is spirit existing in material form with 1000 s of natural chemical compounds. WE neglected it not conciouse of wat we are doing to our health for profit .Till day we make use of synthetic indigo that poisones our skin boil flesh.Big corporates can not use it to produce at easy living effortles effort. Pulping fibre for shimmer with silver particules they radiate it to light in garments, but they eat ones bones and its morrow. One may argue the whole earth will not become reflective and introvertive to re-create re-invent from inner sources. This means science wants to give them, simplified, not simple things! This means wisdom is transformative and difficult one to achieve. Then what shall we do is, try ignorance,hypocracy , priviliges and ego-grip instead.
    Learn from monkey, they are our borthers ,they take only for their needs. In 100 ways we are not superiors; in 100s of ways we are inferior potatos. Every animal lifts its own weight till its death time , but man is the onely one who is not capable.Imagine,with out tools who we are.

    In the last 5 generations of one eyed science days ego-grip, excess use of tools and sex, looking things at artificial light things more real than real is what we learned . Degrees in academies more and more increases money earning skills, truth search is less and less. If at all searched by spending resources ,as they search only where only light is available, not where it was lost.
    We searched where we lost in antiquity it was pitch dark for 33 years to find truth and observe the fact it is time to get real.Our products cannot be having competitors or not imitatable . Since last 10 years every big corporate also researching face lifts organic garments they have come out with great green washings, not products .

    Hence, the paradox is in when simplified,and too simplified eats one another. It is not products WHAT ULTIMATELY COUNTS , the approach to products social value and use counts. Square printed paper is evil currency , round gold coin is economical. Nature is adujsting itself to it to bring real economy .Let us not repeat old mistakes. Hence change not values, change attitude to values in life.

    Then green goods , right green goods will not bring side effects. Take the example of Siddha,tribal medicine and home medicine .It takes genius and talent to inward explore and be conciouse .

  2. “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.”

    I dont know if you have tried them, but the ones we get here are so useless one would go blind with eye strain in the dark.



  3. Tsao’s theory is flawed. He’s assuming that people WANT that much light indoors (or outside at night, even). Who wants to have to wear sunglasses indoors?

  4. It is very nice blog which is creating awareness in people to save the environment.WE have made our environment dirty with Non organic, toxic, chemical products. Now the environmental conditions are not going to live a better life.So to save the environment the main mantra is t use more and more Natural, Green Organic products which are easily biodegradable and recycled. Runka is also in this imitative to save the environment.
    Save Environment with Runka

  5. Producer and consumer both have to acute-perceive the shift that has alread y taken place . In the wheel of life ups and down are common . The outer portions accumulates wights once in a while on its path when the hub shifts( though motionless). In the cyber space proximity ease days easy living on minimal objects and simple (crative) life style is needed. It is possible for all to live easy and simple live. Here simple means creative one . Simplicity does not mean lack of imagination , it is some similar to obtaining gold after digging lots of earth .

    Producer should be souls evolved for generations and eco conciouse and must have innate talent and get it well honed as objective skill training to really produce organic produce . Similarly consumers must be attitude shifted as the time wheel truth changed . They have to shed the dirt accumulated in the past millanium and be prepared to view the present afresh . All big corporates are really unable to cope with this shift . They resist the chage . Green washing and invention in that is going on even after a decade of Organic era.Cat and bell , who will tie it . All kings and Saints behind them is is in disuse service now .

    Unless otherwise this is done we will be repeating the same mistakes of inventing other worlds to live like this luxury . How many are conciouse of our 150% use of this world . How can you conciouse and self respecting one can produce demands of the current consumers. They consumers walk now into store with same old cap on , they are not interested to save the planet . Competition in this time is killing all together .

  6. you could be a resource person to me on my Post Graduate Research on Consumer Education, Environmental Governance and green sticker encapsulated in this title “Kick starting a Neo Environmental governance and
    Consumer Environmental Education in Nigeria using the power of Green Sticker.”
    I am a student of Environmental management student in Nigeria and i realized that environmental education and governance is almost zero if not non-existence in the country; i want to use my work to kick start consumer environmental awareness and a new perspective to environmental management in Nigeria- God helping me, i would like to prepare a bill out of my work to our National Assembly where i expect an Act on Green Sticker to evolve.
    All i need from you is e-Literature and resources that would help me in better understanding of the ideal of Green Sticker from the time immemorial till date, what it can achieve for a nation and what it had achieved for a nation as far environmental management is concerned

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  11. A few years back I bought 6 energy-saving bulbs (total cost approx $40) for my new apartment. They were incredibly dim, and within three months all but one had blown out. All too often, environmentally-friendly products are built with good intentions rather than sensible engineering. Unless the ‘green team’ learn to make their products undergo rigorous quality control and make them robust enough for the real world, people will still rely on old, non-green technology. Incandescent light bulbs may not be as eco-friendly, but at least they work and are reliable.

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