Sustainability a Journey, Not Destination

Green Conference: Advertisers Big and Small Aim to Up Eco-Friendliness

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Down to Earth: The Green Panel included (from l.) Timberland's Carol Yang, HP's Susan Sonderhoff, Toyota's Marjorie Schussel, Aspen's David Perry, Flexcar's Mark Norman and Ben & Jerry's Rob Michalak.

All photos by Rohanna Mertens


NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- "It used to be if you said you were green, you were a lefty or little bit radical," said David Zaslav, president-CEO, Discovery Communications, at Advertising Age's first Green Conference. "It's mainstream now." (Also: see video highlights.)


Reporter's Notebook (Which Will Be Recycled, of Course)
More than 550 executives from marketers as well-known as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Burton Snowboards and Tiffany & Co., as well as many from less-famed companies such as Moosylvania Marketing, Back to Nature and Farmers Almanac TV, attended the half-day confab in New York last week. It was almost double the number expected.

They learned that marketers are going -- or exploring -- green because consumers are clamoring for it. Consumers don't want talk; they want action.

Results
"Americans want companies to be more proactive," said Michael Lawrence, exec VP-corporate responsibility and crisis/issues management at cause-marketing agency Cone. "Companies need to have an environmental strategy across operations to maintain consumers' trust and loyalty. People are willing to switch brands in the event that bad practices are exposed. Advertising remains the leading way people prefer for companies to communicate their practices. Consumers continue to say they'd be willing to pay more if [products] are convenient and will help them save money over the long term."

Aspen Skiing Co., one of six companies honored for eco-marketing at the conference, said responses to consumer survey questions about the importance of its environmental stance have climbed to 33% from 10% in the past decade. The number who make purchasing decisions based on those policies has jumped to 33% from roughly 2%. If one-third of Aspen's customers care about environmentalism, reasoned David Perry, senior VP-mountain division, odds are a third of his competitors' customers do as well. Who wouldn't jump at that chance to move market share?

But be warned: If a company goes green just for market share, there's a good chance it'll go wrong. Speakers from Mr. Lawrence to Live Earth founder Kevin Wall cited authenticity as the key to credible eco-marketing.

So how does a company get it right?

Planning
Start by assessing your environmental footprint, Mr. Lawrence said, and identify environmental strengths and weaknesses. Then develop a marketing-communications plan that not only promotes where and how your company can lead but also is transparent about where it needs to improve and how it plans to do so.
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Michael Lawrence, exec VP at Cone

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Mr. Wall said it is just as important to identify and work with companies who are just now putting environmentally sound practices into place as it is to work with the companies for whom green has long been a part of their DNA. Even long-timers such as Ben & Jerry's admit environmental sustainability is a journey, not a destination.

"From sustainable dairy to packaging, we're trying to figure out how to do it better. It's endless work," said Rob Michalak, director-social mission and public elations, Ben & Jerry's. "We can't be zero; we have to be negative," he said of the company's environmental impact.

No matter where your company is along the green path, communicating your commitment is important, and engaging the consumer is essential.

"We all have to be careful; we can't preach too much," Mr. Zaszlav said as he announced the 2008 launch of the Planet Green channel. "We have to have a little fun with it."

A playful shade of green
That's worked for several of the conference's eco-marketing honorees. Ben & Jerry's manifests its mission in ice cream flavors and activist packaging; Timberland outlines the impact of each pair of shoes with a "nutrition label"; Aspen Skiing Co. markets around the idea that snow will be endangered in the near future; and Flexcar calls itself "the convenient solution for an inconvenient truth."

But even straightforward approaches can do wonders. Eco-marketing honoree Toyota watched sales of its hybrid vehicles jump from an initial target of 12,000 per year to 24,000 in May 2007 alone.

"At one point, leading with your values was thought to be a nice approach to business but not particularly profitable," said Marjorie Schussel, national manager-corporate communications at Toyota North America.

Looks like that's no longer the case.
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