Eco-efforts rely on authenticity

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Earth Day and its attendant hoopla is so last-century, but Americans' concern about environmental preservation remains vibrant. So when marketers hitch their brands to preservation issues nowadays, they must make sure they frame their earth-friendliness to satisfy increasingly sophisticated consumers.

That means less and less "greenwashing"-wherein marketers just throw ad dollars at environmental causes-and more tie-ins that ring of authenticity.

The relationships that resonate most with consumers these days involve direct tie-ins between the actual nature or function of a product or service and actions to preserve wildlife or habitats.

Feld Entertainment, producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses, is breeding an endangered elephant species. Canon USA has an extensive environmental program, including scholarships for doctorate students engaged in conservation and environmental science research benefitting national parks.

Dawn has been trying to save ducks from oil spills because the Procter & Gamble Co. dishwashing liquid has been found especially effective in cleaning aquatic animals caught in such disasters.

Norm Thompson Outfitters is expanding its condor-preservation program.

In its chainsaw ads, Stihl promotes a tree-climbing competition sponsored by the International Society of Arborists. And Green Mountain is producing "shade-grown" coffee in Mexico, preserving more of the natural habitat than conventional cultivation.

"The more successful efforts now are those that have a substantive component to them that are more than superficial or short-term, or more than a solely promotional program," says Jaime Matyas, chief operating officer of the National Wildlife Federation.

"Consumers are more savvy and expecting more, and corporations have more to lose by engaging in cause-marketing relationships that aren't authentic," she says.

SOFTENING THE FOOTPRINT

One of the most remarkable-and controversial-new environmental-marketing gambits comes from Wal-Mart Stores. Justifiably or not, many perceive the nation's largest retailer as rapacious in everything from its human resources practices to the fact that, by building so many new stores, it is eating up land across America.

So in April, acting on an idea proposed by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Wal-Mart pledged to commit $35 million for the next 10 years to conserve at least one acre of priority wildlife habitat for each acre that already is part of the company's "footprint" as well as future development.

The company promotes its move in circulars, in-store TV, newspaper ads and 30-second TV spots. But rather than panning the move as cynical or greenwashing, Ms. Matyas, of the National Wildlife Federation, hails it. "It's a great start," she says. "Wal-Mart should be acknowledged for doing something good, but they shouldn't stop there."

Similarly viewed by environmentalists as a bad guy, Ford Motor Co. has established a priority of making the company's products and facilities as green as possible-and in stepping up its image as environmentally progressive.

"If you're genuine and have been doing these things for the right reasons, and it's part of your corporate DNA, consumers will know," says Andy Acho, Ford's worldwide director of environmental outreach and strategy. "But if you're doing it explicitly for publicity, you will be found out."

So two years ago when it expanded a Michigan truck-making plant, Ford installed the largest living-grass roof in the world. Last year the Dearborn, Mich.-based company became the first U.S. automaker to sell a hybrid SUV. Ford now donates more than $1 million a year to local conservation and grants programs in more than 40 countries, and potential recipients can apply at Ford dealerships. And Ford's Jaguar brand operates a jaguar-preservation program that has been honored by top officials of some Central American nations.

Such was Ford's reputation in wildlife preservation that, in April, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management called Ford when it had a problem: Rustlers were capturing some of the 32,000 wild mustangs that are protected on federal government land in the West and selling them abroad for meat. Could Ford-the renowned producer of the Mustang automobile-help out?

SAVE THE MUSTANGS

The company immediately purchased 52 mustangs that were in danger of slaughter and helped the bureau place them on safer land, and Ford agreed to help finance the transfer of another 2,000 Mustangs to Indian reservations or where not-for-profit groups have agreed to make sure they're fed.

"It's really sort of a payback on 40 years worth of using the Mustang symbol," Mr. Acho says. At the same time, Ford has already set up a Web site to solicit consumer donations to the cause and plans to get its Mustang car clubs and Ford dealers involved.

Norm Thompson Outfitters long has been known as an environmentally sensitive trailblazer in areas such as paper recycling. The Portland, Ore.-based producer of outdoor wear and accessories also has been selling a chocolate "dinosaur egg" for several years.

Recently, the company melded the two ideas in selling a chocolate "condor egg," proceeds from which go to the condor-conservation program at the Oregon Zoo. As the year goes on, the company plans to advertise its condor program more.

"More consumers are making the connection between their purchases and their ability to do good, and that's why this sort of cause-related marketing is resonating well," says Derek Smith, director of communications and corporate responsibility at the retailer.

Some companies are making environmental sustainability part of their raison d'etre-and, therefore, a basis of their marketing platforms. The World Environment Center recently honored Starbucks for its efforts to foster sustainable development for coffee farmers. It provides incentives for its suppliers to meet environmental and labor standards.

Another rain forest pioneer is Sambazon, a marketer of drinks made from the nutritionally potent acai berry, which is helping farmers cultivate the acai palm tree in the Brazilian rain forest without having to raze other Amazonian vegetation to do it.

And Wildlife Works produces clothing at a factory in Kenya, where the Sausalito, Calif.-based brand trains local women to sew and offers them jobs. That way, the women won't have to wipe out the local bush habitat so they can raise food for sustenance.

Now, the company is beginning to attract business from other apparel makers that want to attach themselves to Wildlife Works' environmental do-goodism, says Mike Korchinsky, founder and CEO.

CLEANUP

The Adopt-A-Waterway project, which includes such corporate sponsors as BP, Boeing and Comcast, uses TV, outdoor, print and mobile media to promote clean waterways. The program hopes to be in 20-plus es by 2007.

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