Heading into Earth Day's 30th anniversary April 22, not only has a green positioning become mostly a non-issue in consumer product categories, it's become almost an anti-issue. Paper or plastic? Increasingly, consumers want both -- and can't seem to throw them away fast enough.
Package-goods marketers are now launching whole new classes of disposable products, including tableware that's a cross between paper plates and china; throw-away Tupperware-style containers; and what is shaping up to become one of the biggest new-product categories in a decade -- electostatic dust mops with cloths you toss after using.
UNWILLING TO PAY
"Consumers want to have a clean conscience, but at the same time they're unwilling to pay more for environmentally responsible products that carry a significant price premium," said Burt Flickinger, managing director with consultancy Reach Marketing. "It's also a generation and a country driven by greed with unprecedented wealth. People are not willing to take the time to recycle and return products or make an extra shopping trip to a green store. It's a very me-driven society."
Consider the difference from more than a decade ago when Time named the Planet Earth as its Man of the Year.
* In the '90s, Procter & Gamble Co. was struggling against a feared resurgence in cloth diapers due to heightened environmental consciousness. P&G argued that disposables were no worse than cloth, considering the hot water used to wash them and the fuel used by diaper service trucks. To cover its public-relations behind, the company also launched a municipal composting pilot project for disposable diapers. Today, the composting project and fears about cloth diapers are dead and P&G is locked in a struggle with Kimberly-Clark Corp. and others to paper millions of baby bottoms in China.
* Ten years ago, the Energizer brand was testing a green-colored battery positioned as environmentally friendly, with fewer toxic materials to leach into landfills. Now, green batteries are long gone. With double-digit sales growth fueled by growing numbers of handheld electronic devices, toxic-metal-oozing alkaline batteries have become a fast-growing household products category, with sales up more than 11.2% for the 52 weeks ended Feb. 27, according to Information Resources Inc. The Rayovac brand began a resurgence in 1997 when it redeployed Michael Jordan from its environmentally friendly Renewal rechargeables to instead pitch regular disposables.
* Fast disappearing from the 1990s are grocery stores' recycling stations for plastic shopping bags. Instead, today's hottest retail trend, e-tailing, has brought an explosion of packaging, as growing millions of holiday presents or even groceries come shipped in corrugated boxes cushioned with styrofoam peanuts and air-puffed plastic bags.
LEARNED A LOT
For its part, P&G says the environment has been served even if it isn't composting diapers anymore. "We learned a lot from that debate some years ago and designed a diaper that's significantly thinner than it was back then, which takes up less landfill space," a spokesman said. New diapers are also more absorbent, meaning fewer changes.
Fort James Corp. still markets the Green Forest brand of bath tissue, launched in the late 1980s using recycled pulp. But Green Forest has gotten almost no ad support in recent years as Fort James instead boosted advertising behind its Quilted Northern brand.
Green Forest is getting promotional support this year through co-sponsorship of the Great American Cleanup, a trash pick-up campaign run by Keep America Beautiful.
But Fort James will be spending a comparatively huge $10 million in ads this spring on a more promising brand -- Dixie disposable tableware -- and a new product, Dixie Rinse & ReUse plates, positioned as good enough to replace regular dishes for many occasions. DDB Worldwide, New York, handles Dixie.
"The huge consumer demand right now is for convenience items," said a spokeswoman for Clorox Co., maker of the Glad brand. One of Glad's hottest products currently is Gladware -- semi-disposable Tupperware-like containers marketed on the benefit that they can be lost (or thrown away) without much cost. That product, too, is handled by DDB Worldwide, but out of its San Francisco office.
Another big seller is P&G's Swiffer electrostatic dust mops and cloths. Launched in August 1999, the product hit the $127 million sales mark through Jan. 3, according to IRI, while rival Pledge Grab-It, from S.C. Johnson & Son, registered sales of $49 million in the same period. That puts the combined two products on pace to reach nearly $500 million in first-year sales, a benchmark held up as a standard by P&G and other marketers. They cite only one brand, Nabisco's SnackWell's, as reaching that sales goal in the '90s.
According to the Clorox spokeswoman, reusability of products like Gladware could actually be an environmental benefit because they can be used instead of disposable plastic bags.
Clorox continues to participate in projects such as a national coastal cleanup for its Brita brand and the Great American Cleanup through its Glad brand, though the spokeswoman acknowledges: "We do these things despite information that tells us consumers aren't as concerned about litter anymore."
NEVER REALLY CARED
It's not so much that consumers lost interest in the environment, said Jack Gordon, president of AcuPOLL Precision Research. It's that they never really cared in the first place.
AcuPOLL has been surveying consumer panels about environmental concerns for more than 10 years as part of its concept testing of hundreds of products. On a scale of 1 to 10, female heads of households gave environmental attributes a 6.1 rating in 1991, a 5.3 in 1995 and a 6.0 in 1999, Mr. Gordon said. That may appear to show a resurgence in interest, but a 6 rating has never been enough to actually motivate purchase.
"It's not that we've ever seen people really get into the environment or leave the environment," Mr. Gordon said. "Truth is, they never really were willing to do much. Most people are talking environmentalists, not real environmentalists."
That's disputed by a spokeswoman for Earth Day Network, who said 500 million people globally will participate in Earth Day events this year.
What has changed, according to Mr. Gordon, are the attitudes of marketers, who launched a wave of new products and marketing initiatives in the early 1990s in response to media hype about the environment, he said. When those products failed, marketers lost interest.
The contradiction in Americans' attitudes to environmentalism is reflected in recycling and waste generation statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. recycling rate hit 28% of the total amount of municipal solid waste generated in 1997, compared to 26% in 1996; 16% in 1990; and 10% in 1980. However, the amount of U.S. municipal solid waste generated has grown, to 217 million tons of garbage in 1997, up 3.7% from 1996. The 1997 numbers mark a 5.8% increase since 1990, and up 43.2% since 1980.
Another argument holds that green marketing has been improperly handled in the past. Roper Starch Worldwide revealed in 1994, after a two-year study of environmental ads among readers of nearly 200 magazines, that many marketers weren't maximizing the impact of the ads. Many failed to capitalize on the benefits of their green efforts, and missed out on a chance to attract and hold readers, the market researcher reported. Roper found that Ford Motor Co.'s environmental ads didn't connect with readers back then because they were more about the company than its altruistic efforts.
Ford has apparently learned its lesson. The marketer's 2000 corporate green blitz spotlights how Ford is helping to protect the environment (see related story on Page 59) and how, in three of the 18 ads, that leaves the air cleaner.
Ford isn't alone in still pursuing an environmental direction. Although much less prevalent, green marketing is far from dead. Swedish diaper maker Marlene, for example, recently rolled out a biodegradable diaper into test in about 10% of Wal-Mart Stores in the U.S. And about 5% of new consumer products make recyclability or recycled-content claims, according to Tom Vierhile, president of Marketing Intelligence Service, a new product tracking service. But he cautions he also sees a bigger trend in companies adding more packaging in an effort to increase their shelf space at retail.
Besides Wal-Mart, one of the fastest-growing U.S. chains is Whole Foods Markets, which specializes in organic and natural foods. That chain's sales have quintupled over the past decade to $1.3 billion, despite a presence in only 10 U.S. markets, Mr. Flickinger said, noting that green marketing remains potent in college towns and Canada.
"But the generation that's not in college or university towns," he added, "is back to big, gas-guzzling cars and conspicuous consumption rather than being conscious of the environment."
Contributing: Jean Halliday.