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Is Going Green a Strategic Imperative?

Faced With the Multiple Meanings of Sustainability, Marketers Can Still Act

By Published on . 3

Why should marketers go green? Alicia Walter of the IPG Emerging Media Lab looks at the confusion over just what green means, some of the strategies marketers can take -- and some of the pitfalls to avoid.

Alicia Walter
Alicia Walter
As a marketer, you've likely heard reports lately -- some of them convincing -- that you need to go green. Perhaps you've even heard that the goal is to be sustainable. Or, better yet, you should go green until you are sustainable.

If that isn't confusing enough, the American Marketing Association and Fleishman-Hillard surveyed 270 marketing communications professionals to find out what sustainability meant to them. More than half of the respondents (53%) defined sustainability as the need to balance financial, human and natural resources for the long-term benefit of business and communities. Three percent defined sustainability as a focus on renewable energy resources, and 10% defined it as driving inefficiency out of the supply chain. And 37% don't think that sustainability is any of these things. Not surprisingly, the definition of sustainability is a moving target, as brands respond to consumer pressure and internal objectives.

Contagious magazine's Special Report on Goodvertising points to the use of the environment, corporate social responsibility, ethical investment, fairness and community health and well-being as current trends in advertising. The reason that these trends in ad campaigns continue to gain popularity is clear: The results of an online poll by Harris Interactive showed that despite the economy, 73% of consumers said they still buy green.

Agencies and brands get in the green
You don't have to have a drop of confidence in any reports about melting polar ice caps to move green practices to the top of your company's must-do list. In fact, government regulation may soon be the next biggest reason to clean up. The U.K.'s Carbon Reduction Commitment will be implemented in 2010. And 63 of the respondents to the AMA/FH study believe that new U.S. presidential administration policies will further accelerate the adoption of corporate sustainability programs.

One example of a sustainability effort is IBM Corp.'s Sustainable Procurement program, which takes a wide-lens approach to supply chain management that includes reducing energy, water use, waste and the use of toxic materials. The consulting program also addresses supplier contributions to their communities; engagement in safe and compliant labor practices; support of diverse workplaces; and adherence to business ethics and financial accounting standards in client's supply chains.

Walmart is another example of a company that is leading the way with its commitment to regulate sustainability down the supply chain. "A company that cheats on overtime and on the age of its labor, that dumps its scraps and chemicals in our rivers, that does not pay its taxes or honor its contracts, will ultimately cheat on the quality of its products. And cheating on the quality of products is the same as cheating on customers," said CEO Lee Scott last year at a meeting in China with Walmart suppliers and Chinese government officials.

As marketers, we can see the importance of brands creating more sustainable practices. But what is the motivation for an advertising agency to pay attention to its own office practices or even the practices of the companies that it purchases products or services from?

IPG Lab's sibling agency, Weber Shandwick is one of the first PR firms in the world to earn the environmental management ISO 14001 certification for each of its 83 offices throughout the U.K. and the U.S. Sarah Lee, CMGRP Inc.'s manager of facilities and procurement (or Interpublic's "Queen of Green," as she was introduced to us) is leading the initiative within Weber Shandwick and Interpublic. Ms. Lee told me: "We have a 'Green Team in each office. Obtaining the certification was a top-down decision, but our employees have really driven the effort."

Ms. Lee described how "in order to secure government contracts, Weber Shandwick needed to have someone on its team with LEED certification." Weber's green efforts are an example of how going green is increasingly leading to new business opportunities.

Keep green messaging real
From internal operations to hardware platforms, there are plenty of opportunities for new-media companies to develop more sustainable practices. Reduction in energy consumption and paper waste are low-hanging fruit when it comes to sustainability initiatives. Designing products that use recycled materials, harvesting energy from alternative sources and taking responsibility for the product through the end of its life cycle are all progressive strategies to move your brand ahead. ISO certification, while costly, is another avenue for brands and agencies to prove their green mettle that may have long-term benefits.

However, beware of "greenwashing" or "green sheen," which refers to companies that promote conservation efforts in one aspect of their business while the rest of their business practices are conventional. One rule of thumb is that if your "green advertising" budget is larger than your sustainability budget, then your advertising efforts are in danger of being categorized as greenwashing.

If you're not convinced, it's time to take a closer look at the messages in your green campaigns, consider that the Federal Trade Commission is preparing to publish the first revision since 1998 of the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. This will be the new standard for green marketing and supports speculation that the U.S. government will be increasingly involved in regulating sustainable practices.

Meanwhile, just as government and consumers are demanding more accountability than ever before in this space, a review of 400 new-media players' Web sites (including the Lab's) reveal only a handful of these companies are even talking about their green initiatives.

So for this Earth Day, if your client's sustainability practices are ahead of the curve, get that message out to consumers. If your brand is just coming up to speed on sustainable objectives, educate them on the strategic and financial imperatives behind going green—and then get that message out via social, mobile, online and other channels. Even better, do like shoemaker Timberland did: Ask your customers what green means to them and use those ideas to build a sustainability strategy that creates green in more ways than one.

Alicia Walter is an associate staff member at the IPG Emerging Media Lab, the Los Angeles-based Mediabrands unit that serves as the center for marketing innovation for all IPG companies.

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