Earth Day Is 4O Years Old. What Headway Have We Made?

Ad Age Tallies Up What's Come of Industry's Green Movement

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- It's been 40 years since the first Earth Day sent generations of marketers on a long journey toward ever-bigger April green-marketing campaigns and almost four decades since a weeping Iron Eyes Cody implored Americans to "Keep America Beautiful."

But for all the green rhetoric from marketers, have the waste and pollution generated by the Great American Marketing Machine really been reduced? Are the reductions enough to make up for the increased waste and pollution generated by a growing population, economy and whole new categories of products? The answer, looking at data that track the big picture, is maybe and not quite.

Recycling and efforts to reduce packaging have expanded dramatically the past four decades -- just enough, it turns out, to cancel out the effects of new products and economic growth. The per-capita total municipal solid waste tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rose 35% to 4.5 pounds between 1970 and 2008, the latest year for which data is available. But a nearly sevenfold increase in per-capita recycling meant the net waste per person was more or less flat, declining only 1% to 3 pounds.

Even treading water, though, is by no means a trivial accomplishment given that 40 years ago things such as disposable diapers and baby wipes were merely in their infancy, things such as disposable cleansing cloths, Swiffer, Lunchables and Go-Gurt didn't even exist, and eating out was much more of an occasional treat.

And what the numbers don't track is a change in mindset at marketers and agencies. "The whole notion of sustainable consumption [was] anathema to the old-agency world," said Adam Webach, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S. "You [now] actually think about selling differently rather than more."

In fact, a deeper dive into the numbers shows a marked improvement in some areas of marketing and media. Between 1994 and 2008, the total amount of waste from containers and packaging barely rose, while a 33% increase in recycling actually drove net waste down 13%. That's the absolute amount, which means the reduction occurred despite population and economic growth.

It's a similar story regarding waste from "non-durable goods," which includes things like Swiffers, baby wipes and diapers but also magazines, newspapers and direct mail. From 1994 to 2008, such waste increased a mere 4%, but a 66% increase in recycling resulted in a 12% reduction in net total waste. Hard as it may be to believe, as the catalogs pile up and countless new disposable products have emerged, the waste stream is decreasing here.

Counteracting that progress, however, has been food. The total amount of food waste more than doubled, up 126% to 31.8 million tons, from 1994 to 2008, according to the EPA. Composting of this waste was up 60%, but remains negligible compared to much higher recycling rates for packaging and non-durables.

Durable products such as appliances and tires are also a growing problem, with total waste up 53% and net waste after recycling up 48%. As a result, food and durable products, which were only 24% of net tonnage going to landfills or incinerators in 1994, rose to 41% by 2008. Packaging and non-durable products, including print media, fell from 59% in 1994 to 49% in 2008.

If greenhouse gases are your metric of choice, it's a similar story in some ways to solid waste, though the data doesn't go back as far. From 1990 to 2008, net output of greenhouse gases rose 15% in the U.S., though on a per capita basis the output declined 5% over the period.

Improved fuel efficiency from auto makers did at least help restrain per capita greenhouse gas emissions, rising more than 30% each for cars and light trucks, though still well below the 35.5 mpg average required by 2016 for all new vehicles under new federal rules.

And while more appliances are adding to landfills at a growing pace, the new ones are more efficient. The EPA, by its own accounts of its Energy Star program, estimates products that earned the program's energy-efficiency seal decreased energy use by the equivalent of 30 million vehicles on the road. That comes to around 164 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, or a 3% reduction in the country's total emissions as of 2008.

Bottom line: Efforts by marketers, consumers and government regulators have demonstrably slowed the march of environmental damage over the past 40 years. But with a few exceptions, they haven't reversed the damage -- yet.

"It's hard to give [the industry] a good grade in light of the fact that we face the worst environmental problem we've ever faced with climate change," said Mr. Webach. "So in that sense, we're not doing very well still. But I think the forward outlook is very sunny."

10 green marketing milestones

Keep America Beautiful "Crying Indian" ad: It was more about a wide range of environmental problems and decidedly vague on its call to action, but no environmental commercial is so widely remembered as this 1971 effort for Keep America Beautiful from the Ad Council and Marsteller, Inc., which later became part of Young & Rubicam. The ad is best remembered for a close-up of Iron Eyes Cody with a single tear running down his face.

Removal of phosphates from detergents: This was one of the first big environmental product battles, and the first to involve a heavily advertised consumer category. Starting in 1970, several state and local governments moved to reduce or ban phosphates in laundry detergents. Procter & Gamble Co., Lever Bros. and Colgate-Palmolive Co. made voluntary efforts to reduce phosphates, but also sought, unsuccessfully, to block state and local restrictions. A federal ban on phosphates in laundry detergents took effect in 1993.

Packaging reductions: Laundry detergent, because of the sheer size of the business -- and the packages -- has long been a focus, dating to a wave of product concentration in the 1990s and another late last decade. A relatively tiny brand, Method, has led the way most recently, launching the first triple-concentrated detergent more than five years ago. But the list goes on and on, including everything from the elimination of yogurt lids to General Mills changing the shape of noodles in Hamburger Helper to make boxes smaller and Unilever reconfiguring Suave bottles to require less material use.

The rise of green megabrands: The spawning of such brands as Seventh Generation, Method and Burt's Bees in mass retail in the past decade produced three nine-figure brands that certainly got the attention and spurred changes by their bigger competitors. Clorox Co., for example, responded by buying Burt's Bees and launching its own line of cleaning products based on natural ingredients: Clorox Green Works. Others, such as SCJohnson, responded with their own lines (Nature's Source).

Rise of organics and green retail: Rodale Press created the first set of voluntary standards and certification for organic foods in 1972 and helped organize groups of organic farmers in California and Oregon. Organic foods today account only for about 4% of the U.S. market, according to Whole Foods, and the recession has slowed growth. But that's still a market that didn't exist in 1970.

Energy Star: This certification program for energy-efficient electronics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, launched in 1997, has eliminated greenhouse gases equivalent to those produced by 30 million automobiles, by the EPA's account. That's about equal to 3% of annual net emissions in the U.S.

"An Inconvenient Truth": This 2006 documentary about former Vice President Al Gore's efforts to raise awareness about global warming was key in making climate change and greenhouse gases the focal point of environmental activity in the U.S.

Walmart sustainability efforts: Walmart's packaging scorecard has been instrumental in reducing packaging waste for products sold in its own stores, and inevitably just about every other store, since 2007. Its "Supplier Sustainability Index" rolled out widely last year is encouraging, or more realistically forcing, most marketers to conduct comprehensive audits of the environmental impact of their operations and the entire life cycles of their products and services.

Rise of the Toyota Prius: It may not have saved the world, but at 1 million cumulative vehicle sales the Prius became the predominant fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle since its 1997 launch and the unofficial status symbol of eco-consciousness. Sales in the U.S. peaked in 2007 and were down 23% over that year in 2009 at just under 140,000.

Death of the Hummer: If the Prius became the symbol of eco-consciousness last decade, the single-digit-mileage, fuel-gulping Hummer became the symbol of environmental disregard. Hummers never cracked even 10% of Prius sales in the U.S. And the brand became a victim of General Motors' bankruptcy as the company discontinued the brand earlier this year after failing to find a buyer.

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