Driving Adoption of Renewable Energy: Part I – A Utility’s Perspective

August 31, 2008

Interview with Tom Auzenne, Assistant Director, City of Palo Alto Utilities

 

Electrical power generation accounts for 40% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the US.  Such a high concentration of GHGs is due to our reliance on highly polluting fossil fuels, especially domestic coal.  Yet, while the popular press focuses on the recent growth in renewable energy, it still provides only 2% of our total electrical needs today. 

 

Until recently, many arguments have been made for why adoption of clean energy remains slow.  Certainty, price ranks as the #1 barrier to broader adoption.  Other factors include reliability concerns and lack of education about the technologies.

 

Interestingly, Palo Alto, California has bucked this trend.  Over the course of several years, the municipal utility has partnered with 3Degrees, a utility marketing company, to encourage residents to sign up for its PaloAltoGreen program which provides 100% renewable energy from wind and solar power sources.  The results of this program have been astounding, with over 20% of all residents switching to clean energy.  Indeed, PaloAltoGreen is now ranked as the #1 green energy program nationwide based on participation.  

  

What does this mean for GHG reduction?  Well, it is quite simple: the purchase of 41.5M kWh of renewable energy translates into a reduction of 350,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak independently with both Tom Auzenne from the City of Palo Alto Utilities. We spoke about consumer interest in renewable energy, barriers for greater adoption by consumers and key reasons for this program’s success.  Here is what Tom Auzenne had to say:

MG: Who purchases renewable energy in Palo Alto?  What is the mix between residential, commercial and governmental entities?

 

TA: PaloAltoGreen (PAG) is the City of Palo Alto’s 100% renewable energy optional program open to all residential and commercial customers with an active electric service provide by the City of Palo Alto Utilities. The program has about 20% of the customers involved, with residential customers making up on average 95% of the mix and the commercial customers at 5%. Our residential sales account for roughly 60% of the program sales with commercial and governmental making up the rest. 

 

However, starting with July 2008, both the City of Palo Alto (CPA) and the Regional Water Quality Plant (RWQCP) are increasing their commitment to buy renewable energy equal to 30% of their total usage, a ten-fold leap from the previous 3% of total usage purchases.  This will increase the percentage of nonresidential customers in the program.

 

MG: Describe the demographics of your average residential customer that signs up for renewable energy?  How do they differ from the average utility customer in Palo Alto?  Across the US?

 

TA: As a general rule, the residential PAG customer is well educated, in a high income household and is environmentally progressive.  Most are thinking about their environmental impact and want to do something about it.

 

One of the primary differences from other green pricing program around the country is that PAG customers generally use less energy per month than our average customer.  PAG customers use 400-600 kilowatt hours (kWh) per month compared to the national average of about 888 kWh (according to the DOE).  This indicates that our customers may also be trying to reduce their electricity usage through energy efficiency or other measures.

 

MG: What motivates residents of Palo Alto to switch to renewable energy (e.g., attitude toward the environment, concern for their kids, financial incentives, community empowerment, etc.)?  Are their attitudes substantially different than the rest of Americas?  If so, in what ways?

 

TA: There are many motivations leading to program participation. These include being role models for the next generation, “doing the right thing” for the environment, and buying renewables as a logical next step after energy efficiency.

 

CPAU strives to communicate the environmental benefits of renewable energy to Palo Altans in as many ways as possible. Combine this near constant communication with high community awareness of the issues surrounding climate change, and you have the combination that brought PAG such success.
 
  
We also work closely with the Palo Alto Unified School District on energy and curriculum.  Many customers not participating in PAG have taken a more direct approach, and have installed their own photovoltaic (PV) systems rather than buy renewable energy from the market. Between January 2007 and March 2008, 92 PV systems were installed in Palo Alto, representing 250 kW of generation.

 

MG: What, if any, is the premium charged for purchasing renewable energy (vs. non-renewable) today?  What factors do you attribute to a customer’s willingness to pay such a premium (e.g., level of affluence, attitude regarding the environment, etc)?  Do you think renewable energy will be adopted by a majority of customers without eliminating the premium altogether?

 

TA: Residential and small commercial customers can enroll in PAG for 100% of their monthly electric usage at a premium of 1.5 cents/kWh. Large commercial and industrial customers can buy renewable energy in blocks of 1,000 kWh for $15 per block. This allows them to support renewable energy at a level that makes business sense.

 

One of the nice things about PAG is that the price doesn’t fluctuate. CPAU hasn’t changed the price for 100% renewable energy in five years and has no plans to do so. The demographics of Palo Alto are also great for marketing renewable energy, as our customers tend to be interested in the environment and can have a level of disposable income that allows a lower barrier to participation.  

 

MG: A 20% adoption rate for renewable energy is impressive.  Can this success be replicated across the country?  If so, what will it take to do so?  If not, what are the obstacles (e.g., low awareness, lack of urgency, difficult process to switch, price premium, etc.)?   

 

TA: With the continuous support of our local elected officials on the City Council, the staff of the City government, the employees of the Utilities Department, and, of course, our great customers, nearly everyone is behind this program. This type of support is vital to the success of a green pricing program in Palo Alto and elsewhere in the country.

 

Other factors that need to be in-place, or created, include customer awareness of the environment, a history of energy efficiency, an active partnership with the schools and students, and a willingness to lead.

 

It should be noted that not all the program participants have vast disposable incomes. Participants are both young and old, in the prime of their earning years or on fixed incomes, have children or are childless. All share, however, the same vision of, and desire for, a sustainable future.

 

MG: What are your primary marketing objectives in the residential and commercial markets?  Do you find the need to spend significant time building awareness of either the category or the technology?

 

TA: CPAU has found that targeted messaging, repetition, clear information about the product and a call to action (“closing the sale”) bring results. If the job is done correctly, then customers are aware.

 

For those customers that have more questions, we have many ways for them to find answers to any question that they might have.

 

MG: Is there any skepticism on the part of consumers regarding the (reduced) impact that renewable energy has on the environment? 

 

TA: There are always skeptics, but we focus on educating consumers on the positive aspects of the renewable energy we provide.  With the melting of the North Pole ice and the retreating of the Swiss glaciers, featured on the Evening News, skepticism has been reduced or eliminated.

 

MG: Please describe how you partner with 3Degrees in terms of your marketing efforts.  What are the core components of these marketing efforts?  What made them so successful?

 

TA: 3Degrees specializes in marketing renewable energy. They have partnerships with utilities in California and around the country. They are able draw on their experience and accumulated data to provide targeted marketing and program management support.

 

CPAU brings its knowledge, reputation and trust of the community to this partnership to help sharpen the marketing even more. With their experience and our community awareness, we have created one of the most effective, and successfully marketed, green power programs in the country.


Open Skies Agreement Provides a Glimpse of What’s to Come in a Carbon-Regulated Environment

March 29, 2008

Today, many executives, and especially those working in carbon-intensive industries, are grappling with how future carbon regulation may impact their businesses and industries.   

To deal with uncertainty regarding such strategic issues, many corporate executives turn to scenario planning or even game theory to think about how the future competitive environment may unfold and how it may impact their companies.  By doing so, corporate executives are, in effect, peering into the future to get a glimpse of what may come. 

Given its contribution to climate change, expected growth rate and evolving regulatory environment, the commercial airline industry presents an interesting case study to learn how competitive dynamics may change in a carbon-regulated environment. 

Today, airlines are responsible for emitting 2-4% of greenhouse gases from manmade sources.  Significant gains in fuel economy have been made with each generation of aircraft; the new Boeing 787, for example, promises a 20% increase in fuel efficiency.  Yet, total emissions continue to rise as industry growth (4.4%) has outpaced fuel economy (1.3%) by more than 3:1. 

There have been attempts made to regulate carbon emitted from commercial aviation.  The Kyoto Protocol, for example, counts emissions from domestic airline sources in its targets.  Emissions from international travel are omitted, however.  

While there is growing support to include international aviation under any successor treaty to Kyoto, it is far from certain that this will happen.  As such, the EU has taken unilateral action by imposing higher landing fees based on a plane’s greenhouse gas emissions (pending parliamentary approval).  This arrangement would include not only internal EU flights (by 2011) but, very importantly, international flights that take off or land from the EU (by 2012).   

By doing so, the EU is flexing its muscle, establishing its authority to regulate carbon emissions for companies that operate, but are not based, within the EU.  While similar to how more terrestrial multi-national corporations operate today, this is groundbreaking in the airline industry: historically the industry was regulated through bilateral negotiations or the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization.  In effect, the EU is simultaneously balancing growth objectives in aviation with its efforts to mitigate environmental impact.   

The Open Skies agreement between the US and the EU is a great example of this.  Tomorrow, Phase I of this agreement goes into effect.  Its primary impact will be to provide open access for airlines to fly between the US and the EU.   

Not surprisingly, this agreement has caused a heated debate.  While the EU expects an increase of up to 26 million additional leisure travelers over the next five years (representing a 14% increase in passengers), there are many that cry foul and accuse the EU of undermining its own efforts to reduce global warming.  In fact, adding the new passengers may increase global emissions by the airline industry up to 0.7%.      

But, that is not all.  Changes in emissions do not include additional business travelers or air freight.  Moreover, this number represents the net increase in air travelers only; it does not include those who may substitute international travel for their current domestic travel due to price declines.  A shift to longer-haul flights to the EU has the potential to increase air travel distance. As a result, global emissions from the airline industry may increase by 2.8% more, for a total of 3.5% rather than 0.7%.  Off a global base of 2.3 billion air travelers, this is a significant increase in carbon emissions from a single bilateral trade agreement.

To balance growth with the environment, the EU will require airlines to participate in an emission trading system that will provide the incentive for airlines to both reduce overall emissions and offset the rest.  While implementation will be gradual, the result will be to create a dynamic case study by which we can discern how the competitive environment will be transformed as carbon regulations take hold.  Here is how the scenario may unfold: 

Governments may wield new influence to demand higher standards.  In the aftermath of the Kyoto negotiations, there is a belief that substantive progress on climate change will be held back by a few, albeit influential, nations.  While this is possible, there is another scenario that is more likely given the interdependence of the global economy: higher standards will be achieved by using economic leverage to achieve them. 

The Open Skies agreement is a classic example of this.  The US wants more access to European markets for US carriers while the EU has clearly tied this access to increased regulation on carriers. 

Indeed, the rhetoric has been intense.  Jacques Barrot, the EU’s transport commissioner, has made it clear that the EU was prepared to “[reduce] the number of flights or [suspend] certain rights” if EU emission regulation were not honored.  Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has vowed to fight the unilateral imposition of emissions caps by the EU.   

Such opposing views reflect public opinion: while 40% of Britons support an increase in airline fares to reduce global warming, only 20% of Americans say they do.  Nonetheless, there is a growing consensus that the US will acquiesce under a new presidency. 

Public sentiment may accelerate action before regulation takes effect.  JPMorgan predicts that required carbon offsets under the Open Skies agreement will not significantly increase prices until 2015 or beyond: 87% of the necessary permits will be distributed for free to incumbent airlines, reducing pass through costs to consumers.  Instead of an estimated €20 surcharge, international passengers may pay an additional €4 per roundtrip in the foreseeable future (though rising substantially after 2020). 

Nonetheless, public sentiment will not likely stand still – especially in light of the 3-year, $300 million campaign that Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection is expected to launch next month to raise awareness and change people’s minds regarding the environment.  As JPMorgan points out, it is likely that “carriers that present themselves as unconcerned about environmental degradation or deny the airline industry’s responsibility to address the problem could find themselves targets of activist campaigns, with negative implications for both public image and revenue.”   

As such, Marketing Green recommends that airlines stay ahead of public sentiment, regardless of the status of environmental regulation.  This can be done by publicly recognizing the challenge and by taking action steps to reduce its environmental impact directly from air travel or ancillary services such as travel to and from the airport. 

This is all the more important for carriers flying on international routes.  The Open Skies agreement, for example, will likely increase competition between airlines as more airlines establish direct routes between US and EU destinations.  US airlines must be sensitive to European concerns about the environment, for example, if they are to win a share of the market. 

Even in a carbon regulated market, green remains a differentiator.  By imposing carbon emission fees, the EU is effectively setting a minimum standard for an airline to be green.  In effect, the imposition of regulation resets the competitive environment by clearly defining what it means to be green and insulating companies from further criticism if they meet the standards set by government.   

While this is generally true, companies should recognize that even with standards in place, green will remain a powerful market driver.   

For example, airlines will still be vulnerable to activists who call them out for not being consistently green across their operations.  While regulation offsets the impact of aviation fuel, it does not necessarily apply to corporate operations, the ground crews servicing the plane, or even the manufacturing of the plane itself, for example.   

Moreover, customer needs are evolving and airlines need to adjust their offering to align with them.  For example, KPMG UK currently offers its 11,000 employees additional Membership Rewards points on their American Express cards if they take a mode of transportation that has less impact on the environment (trains versus planes).  They are also promoting greater use of teleconferencing which reduces travel time and environmental impact altogether. 

Airlines are starting to respond.  For example, on trans-Atlantic flights to Paris, Continental Airlines offers connecting rail service to Lyon.  Moreover, Silverjet, a new player in the premium category, was the first to become carbon neutral, embedding carbon offsets in its ticket purchase price.  

Marketers should carefully watch how the Open Skies agreement unfolds with time.  The agreement provides a window into how governments may negotiate carbon emission reductions in the future, as well as how marketers could respond to changing consumer sentiment and needs in a carbon-regulated environment. 


Shopping for Green Online

March 4, 2008

An Interview with thepurplebook Founder Hillary Mendelsohn

With the exception of a few select product categories, growing consumer interest in green has not yet translated into substantive changes in purchase behavior by mainstream consumers.  Like many nascent categories, green faces many barriers to widespread adoption. 

In many ways, product adoption in the green space is a classic chicken and an egg problem: uncertain demand leads manufactures to limit the number of products they launch.  Limited products and product choice, in turn, curtails demand.  However, this only tells half the story as there are many reasons why demand is limited. 

Even with those receptive to a green message, marketers are challenged by low familiarity with green products.  This, in turn, hampers consumers from effectively navigating the category as well as making informed purchase decisions.   

Where do consumers turn for credible information today?  Product companies?  Not necessarily, as consumers are increasingly skeptical about green marketing claims.  Fellow consumers?  Uncertain, as their peers are likely to have equally limited experience with green products.  

Can consumers rely on standards?   Perhaps.  Standards have been adopted in certain categories and many more are on the way.  Yet, rollout of new standards takes time; familiarity with what existing ones mean (i.e., how green is green?) is still limited.    

Instead, consumers today may turn to credible third party sources for guidance.  One such source is the recently launched thepurplebook green, a complete guide to green shopping online.  With an extended following already, thepurplebook series enters the green market with significant brand awareness…and credibility as a reliable source for online shopping information.  Indeed, just weeks after launch, thepurplebook green is planning a second printing.

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Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with thepurplebook Founder Hillary Mendelsohn.  We discussed growing consumer interest in the environment, the role that purchases play for consumers to express their convictions on green and the role that thepurplebook green plays in facilitating green purchases.  Here is what she had to say: 

MG: Does consumer concern for the environment translate into increased purchase of green products? 

HM: Purchasing power holds two powerful acts for the consumer.  First, purchasing green allows the consumer to feel better about his/her choices and particularly for personal care products, food and household items there are positive health-oriented reasons  to make such purchases.   

Second, other than voting, this is the consumer’s strongest voice to the corporations at large.  Purchasing green holds corporate America more accountable for creating green options, and ultimately having greener practices internally. 

For both of these reasons, the ‘voice’ that purchasing green gives the consumer has and will continue to increase the sales volume of green products. 

MG: What types of green products do consumers purchase?   

HM: Consumers are purchasing based on their lifestyles.  Young families are focused on greener/healthier cleaning, food and personal care items.  Older consumers are building or remodeling green.  The overall theme is that people are beginning to care about shopping more responsibly and are looking for ways to make better choices.   

It is the job of thepurplebook green and those of us that care about this concern to point them in the right direction. 

MG: Are consumers purchasing green products or brown products that are now greener? 

HM: The answer is both.  But the victory lies in the fact that they are making the effort to make better choices.  We must educate, create standards and make sure products do not lack in quality, style or cost too much.  If we can show consumers that they do not have to compromise on quality, taste or price, we can have everyone purchasing green. 

MG: What was the origin of the book?  Did it evolve out of a passion for green or a business opportunity similar to your other books or a little of both? 

HM: I knew very little about being green prior to starting this book.  I was happily writing online shopping guides when one evening, a friend invited me to see a screening of An Inconvenient Truth.  I sat in the darkened theater thinking about how I had contributed to this huge problem, and the legacy my children will inherit.   

Then I thought, if I were to become part of the solution instead, what would that look like?  Being an online shopping expert, I went to the web to see what I could find as far as earth-friendly fare was concerned.  It was slim pickings and hard to find anything at all. 

I thought, if I apply my skill set and focus exclusively on green product, I will educate myself, and create a book that might help make being green easier for others.  That said, I am a business professional, and what I have discovered, is that green makes sense and makes money – they are not mutually exclusive.   

I do hope this book is wildly successful, as that will mean people are adopting change and I have done my part. 

MG: Who is your target audience?  What beliefs do they hold about the environment?  What are their demographics?  Are they consistent with their behavior? 

HM: The beauty of this book is that it is meant for the eco-neophyte as well as the eco-savvy.  There is education and information for those who want to learn more and great resources for those who already know why they are making  better choices but can’t find the product.  There isn’t a demographic, but rather those wanting a greener lifestyle.   

The idea isn’t to exclude anyone, but to include everyone open to making greener choices whether it is their first or someone who lives dedicated to the greenest lifestyle possible.  This is doable for everyone.  The more we encourage choice and change, the more people will adopt greener lifestyle habits. 

Consistency lies within the consumer having good experiences with green products.  Once they have found good products, they do stick with them. 

MG: How should merchants approach you for inclusion in the book?  What is the criteria for inclusion? 

HM: Any merchants who wish to be considered for inclusion in thepurplebook Green, can log on to www.thepurplebook.com and submit their site for inclusion.   

Our criteria includes the following:  You must be able to complete the transaction online using a secure server, the site must be reasonable to navigate, customer service policies must be clearly stated and fair and a phone number is required for all sites. 

MG: How do you determine how green a company is?  Do you use a ratings system?  

HM: We have familiarized ourselves with all of the certifications currently used and have tried to glean a working knowledge of what is and isn’t green.   If we have questions, we contact the site and we do our very best to deliver consistent, quality information to our consumers. 

If we question it, or a site is not completely green but has a substantial green offering, we let the consumer know that too.  We are all trying to just to do better than we were yesterday, and need to keep that in mind and not judge too harshly. 

This is a relatively new area and we all have much to learn.  No one knows it all – yet.  All of the sites listed in the book are exceptional or they would not be there; however, we do make a special acknowledgement for those sites that also package and ship green.


Corporations Foster Dialogue On the Environment

January 14, 2008

While many corporations leverage the Internet to distribute information about environmental initiatives, a few companies are going much further by facilitating two-way dialogue with stakeholders.   

Some companies may view such dialogue – via email, web forums, chat rooms and video – as risky, as it may open them up to public scrutiny.  Moreover, this sentiment may be especially true today for those brands that compete in carbon-intensive industries. 

Nonetheless, companies that are bold enough to enter into a dialogue tend to find that the rewards outweigh the risks.  Dialogue creates a direct channel to stakeholders that can be used to gather feedback, build credibility, and engender more loyalty by showing a more human side of the company. 

In other cases, companies are using dialogue to activate stakeholders – including customers, suppliers, employees, partners and shareholders – as change agents by soliciting new ideas. 

There are several examples of dialogue in the environmental space.  Here are just a few: 

British Telecom: It seems that on most corporate sites today, users are hard pressed to find a specific contact to forward their concerns to, let along an email address that does not deliver to a general mailbox. 

BT is different in this regard as it offers a detailed listing of contact names and email addresses to send questions specifically regarding corporate social responsibility, corporate environment programs and environmental supply chain management.

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Shell: Shell periodically conducts webcasts with senior-level executives on topics such as its annual Sustainability Report.  Interviews address questions solicited from stakeholders via email.   

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Dell: When Michael Dell declared that he wanted to build the “greenest PC on earth,” his company launched IdeaStorm as a platform to solicit “direct feedback from, [its] customers, suppliers and stakeholders” on how to do just that.  Moreover, IdeaStorm engages its stakeholders as change agents by encouraging them to promote their ideas and discuss them online with Dell and other users.

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General Motors: Chevrolet just announced a bold move in the green space by inviting the public to enter into a direct dialogue regarding GM flagship division and actions that it is taking to reduce its environmental impact. Through a New York Times advertisement, Beth Lowery, GM Vice President for Environment, Energy and Safety Policy asked the public to “talk” with Chevy about mutual concerns for the environment and what Chevy is doing to address them.   

Lowery asks the public to submit questions through a New York Times microsite that will be published in the Friday Op/Ed section.

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While many marketers perceive direct dialogue as too risky, many companies have fully engaged with stakeholders on many sensitive topics including the environment.  For many, a direct channel to the customer provides a way to generate feedback as well as to solicit new ideas.  Others focus on creating a more human way to connect with stakeholders. 

Regardless, dialogue is consistent with key attributes of leading green brands including accountability, transparency and credibility. More companies need to overcome their fear of potential negative feedback and join the dialogue on green issues. If done correctly, dialogue will more likely mitigate than engender consumer backlash in the future.  

(Full disclosure: GM is a Digitas client)


A Look Back at Green Marketing in 2007

December 29, 2007

In retrospect, 2007 may be viewed as the year of the great awakening in the US regarding climate change.  The mass media gets much credit for helping to foster awareness for the issue through film (eg, The Inconvenient Truth), broadcast (eg, Planet Earth), online content (eg, Live Earth) and star power (eg, Leonardo DiCaprio).  State and local initiatives confirmed grassroots support for action on climate change.  And the year will end with a modest energy bill passed by Congress.   

While it is unlikely that the Bush administration will sponsor comprehensive action on climate change during 2008, court decisions made in 2007 lay the groundwork for doing so in the future.   

Importantly, leading brands awoke in 2007 to the realization that inaction on climate change was no longer an option; by contrast, action could open up myriad new opportunities.   

Consumers today are much more concerned about climate change than they were even one year ago.  Moreover, they are expecting their favorite brands not only to share their concern but to take action (or enable their consumers) to mitigate it.

Throughout all of this, the interest in green marketing continued to trend upward in 2007.  In fact, according to Technorati Charts, the average number of daily references to “green marketing” in the blogosphere doubled from about 150 per day in 2006 to more than 300 per day during the second half of 2007.

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Source: Technoratic Charts; Data for the first half of 2007 was not available

Notably, interest in green marketing spiked considerably in late summer just as reports of persistent drought in the Southeast (and Southwest) appeared in the national media, and again during the fall when brushfires scorched much of California. Additionally, late fall brought news from the UN’s conference at Bali and legislative action on an energy bill in Washington. 

Moreover, according to Google Trends, search volume for “green marketing” also continued to trend upward during 2007.  Not surprisingly, many marketing professionals spent 2007 trying to grapple with whether the time was right to green their brand and marketing communications, and if so, how to do it credibly.

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Interestingly, green marketing continues to be an issue of global interest.  In fact, Google Trends reports that, on a relative basis, more searches for “green marketing” originated from India than from any other country.      

Rank

Country

1

India

2

UK

3

US

4

Thailand

5

Australia

6

Canada

7

China

Traffic to the Marketing Green blog confirms the fact that green marketing is a global issue.  A recent Site Meter snapshot of site visitors based on referring location indicates that a significant percentage of traffic originates outside of Western Europe and North America.

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Source: Site Meter, mid-December snapshot, last 100 visitors to site 

Yet, when all is said and done, we end the year with much accomplished but even more work to be done.  Today, businesses are holding back on green product development because demand for eco-friendly goods is still uncertain; companies are also putting off  more efficient capital investments while the regulatory environment is in flux.  Moreover, many companies find themselves afraid to even dip their toe in the green marketing waters for fear that, despite good intentions, their initiative will be perceived as greenwashing.   

Consumer attitudes on green continue to evolve.  Green today is still largely viewed as a personal virtue, rather than a societal norm.  As such, consumers have yet to translate their concern into sustained changes in purchase behavior.   Moreover, standards for green products (not to mention marketing communications) have yet to be adopted in most categories, leaving consumers to their own devices to comparison shop.  

Green marketers will play a crucial role in 2008 in multiple ways.  Not only will they influence the pace at which their companies adopt more sustainable business approaches, but also the rate at which consumers translate awareness into purchases.  The stakes are high, as the potential impact of climate change becomes all the more real.  Along the way, Marketing Green will continue to provide insights into the changing face of green marketing.  See you in 2008.


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

December 12, 2007

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.   


Waning Opportunity to be Early Mover on Green

November 18, 2007

Today, consumers increasingly associate themselves with social responsibility, particularly on the environment:  BBMG recently reported that US consumers increasingly say that words like “socially responsible” (88% say these as words describe them “well”, 39% as “very well”) and “environmentally friendly” (86% well, 34% very well) describe them.  Additionally, Edelman reported that consumers are not just talking, but taking action:  40% of US consumers are more involved in social causes than they were two years ago and expect their brands to do the same.  The top issue that consumers care about globally?  Protecting the environment (92% of those surveyed).

As such, it should not be surprising that many leading companies today are responding by aligning their brands with more socially reponsible and eco-friendly activites and attributes (See “Defining Green Brand Leadership”, Marketing Green, October 29, 2007). There are several reasons why these companies feel the urgency to act:  First, they simply may be trying to stay relevant by aligning more closely with the evolving expectations that consumers have for the companies they purchase from and the brands they associate with. 

Second, they may be trying to secure a competitive advantage in the market as an early mover on green.  Pioneer status may bestow the companies credibly in the space, and perhaps enable them to reach new customer segments that have a strong affinity for the environment.  

 

Finally, companies recognize that it may be easier and far less costly to reposition a traditional brand as green today than it will be after Congress passes regulation that mandates all companies to do so.  Companies that wait for federal intervention will likely have to play catch-up when it does happen by complying with new mandates while convincing consumers of their green credentials.  By then, however, companies may have to do so in a crowded media space (because every company playing catch up will have to do similar) and face skeptical consumers who may question whether corporate motivations are genuine or simply done to comply with federal mandates.

 

Marketers should recognize that the window of opportunity is closing for brands to establish themselves as an early mover in the green space.  Today, not only is US consumer sentiment shifting, but the political winds are as well.  Backed or perhaps empowered by recent court rulings, politicians in Washington are floating legislation on climate change that will move the US closer to a time when being green is less of a differentiator than simply a cost of doing business.  Here is what has been happening:

States – led by both Democrats and Republicans – are pressing for change: With the announcement of the Midwestern Regional Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord (MRGGRA) last week, 24 states have now committed to greenhouse gas emission targets.

States with Green House Gas Emission Targets 

states-with-ghg-targets_pdf.gif

based on Pew Center research and announcement of MRGGRA accord

 

Moreover, several state governors are actively campaigning for change.  For example, a recently launched TV campaign by the Environmental Defense Action Fund featuring three western governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA), Brian Schweitzer (D-MT) and Jon Huntsman (R-UT) should help increase pressure on Congress to act.  This commercial is significant not only because it features two Republicans but that the governors represent Western states that traditionally champion states’ rights and frown on federal intervention.

Finally, major federal court decisions – three in seven months – hold regulators responsible for considering climate change risk when setting pollution standards.  The most recent ruling handed down last week by the federal Court of Appeals in San Fransciso overturned the Bush administration’s proposed fuel standards for light trucks and SUVs, stating regulators “failed to thoroughly assess the economic impact of tailpipe emissions that contribute to climate change”.  In doing so, the court sided with the plaintive that included 13 states and cities.

Political sentiment is shifting in the US in favor of action on climate change.  Marketers should consider taking action soon rather than later to green their brands in order to avoid playing catch-up afterwards.  Once Congress takes action, companies will lose the opportunity to build green credentials and shape their brand ahead of the pack.  Those that wait may struggle to catch up as consumers may question the integrity of their motivations. 


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