The inconvenient truth is that earlier waves of green marketing in package goods didn't stick: Note the short life of green-colored batteries and the disposable-diaper composting programs of the early 1990s. Yet even skeptics believe green marketing could have staying power this time -- provided marketers don't get carried away.
Jack Gordon, a package-goods veteran who has tracked consumer appeal of products since the early 1990s as CEO of AcuPoll Precision Research, was dubious about green marketing. He's less skeptical now.
Difference of a dime
"Back in the 1990s, people loved to talk about the environment, but they weren't going to pay 10 cents more for an environmentally friendly product," he said. "Now in many cases they will. ... What they won't do is go much above that. "
The increased power of green, he believes, comes from unrelenting news coverage of environmental issues. The other factor, he said, is support from big retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores, Kroger Co. and Home Depot.
John Yengo, who worked on Procter & Gamble Co.'s Dawn brand when it got substantial publicity for aiding in the cleanup of birds slimed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, is now partner at Barefoot Advertising, Cincinnati. Last year the agency developed DawnSavesWildlife.com, where more than 130,000 people created virtual flocks that encouraged friends to stop their cars' gas and oil from leaking into the environment.
The difference between then and now, he said, is that "people are paying closer attention." But while P&G also put TV support behind the wildlife effort, via Publicis Groupe's Kaplan Thaler Group, New York, brand advertising still focuses mainly on performance.
P&G rival Unilever has made its All Small & Mighty Detergent a poster child for Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott's sustainability efforts, which has helped turn All into a $100 million business. The product helps save 150 million pounds of plastic and 26 million gallons of diesel fuel annually, according to All's website. General Mills recently announced a move to smaller cereal boxes and promised retailers 5,000 fewer trucks on the road and 750 million fewer tons of paperboard.
Now P&G is leading an effort to double the concentration of almost all other liquid detergents by later this year, which could save far more packaging and fuel than those efforts combined. But the fact that P&G didn't follow Unilever and Method Products into triple-concentrated detergents shows the environment still doesn't trump performance. Triple concentrates wouldn't work with P&G's enzyme that protects fabrics from fading.
The steady growth of some products makes it clear green marketing has staying power. In the natural-household-cleaners and-supplies category, brands such as Seventh Generation and Ecover have helped create a $112 million category, with growth up 16.6% between 2005 and 2006.
Yet Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, the organic "worm-poop" fertilizer, believes organic products need to grow faster by lowering their prices. While he's earning $130,000 as CEO, he's not willing to pay the extra $2,000 or so for a hybrid car.