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Green Marketing and the '4/40 Gap'
Joel Makower, 15 Jan 06

The notion of "sustainable consumption and production" continues to be one of the more persistent and vexing challenges on the sustainability front. The challenge, of course: how to balance global consumers' seemingly infinite needs, desires, and aspirations with the planet's decidedly finite resources. Aligning production and consumption at a sustainable level will require some combination of fixes on both the supply side (technological innovation that produces radical levels of efficiency, for example) and the demand side (promoting and incentivizing responsible and appropriate consumption).

While there seems to be steady progress on the supply side, the demand side of the equation seems unchanged -- and stubbornly unchangeable. Consumption levels in both the developed and developing world keep rising, with no end in sight. And consumers seem to continually say one thing and do another, a phenomenon known as the "4/40 Gap": roughly 40% of consumers say they're willing to buy greener products, but only 4% actually does, at least according to some surveys.

A new publication from the United Nations Environment Programme, Talk the Walk: Advancing Sustainable Lifestyles through Marketing and Communications, attempts to close the 4/40 Gap by promoting the use of mainstream communications and marketing strategies to change consumer attitudes. Say the authors: "The key to overcoming barriers to sustainable consumption while making a profit definitely constitutes the Holy Grail for marketers, with potential for delivering double-digit growth for years to come."

Such bottom-line-enticing come-ons, the authors' earnestness, and the publication's slick graphics notwithstanding, it's a tough sell.

Sure, there's some good stuff here, including a gallery of advertising approaches promoting some aspect of sustainability, from the subtle to the not-so-subtle (see above). Some of these are even laudable, such as the efforts by Grupo Pão de Açúcar, Brazil's largest retailer:

It aims at promoting small Brazilian producers by introducing their products to mainstream retail circuits. Products selected for promotion also demonstrate social and/or environmental value-added. . . . As a result, some 60,000 products from 69 different small suppliers have been sold in a little over a year, generating sales of US$220,000 and accounting for between 0.04% and 0.23% of sales of each participating store.

It should be pointed out that $220,000 represents about one-half of one percent of Grupo Pão de Açúcar's $43 million advertising budget.

And then there's the inspiring story of a campaign by Kia, the Korean car maker, to promote its Sedona model in the U.K. As a new kid on the block in the U.K. market, Kia seized on the public debate on climate change to differentiate itself from competitors -- including a daring campaign to encouraging walking instead of driving for short trips. Kia promoted the notion of a Walking Bus -- in which "a group, or 'bus', of children walk from home to school each morning quickly and safely under the guidance of trained adult supervisors." The campaign launched in 1999 and is still active.

But, speaking as a corporate communications strategist, Talk the Walk doesn't reveal many secrets -- and the insight it does offer often seems more sinister than sincere. One example is its notion of the "green Trojan horse":

As exemplified by organic and fair-trade products or first hybrid vehicles, the ultimate role of green products in shaping sustainable consumption patterns probably consist in changing consumers' attitudes, building confidence in new solutions or technologies, and acting as a Trojan horse in mainstream groups' marketing approach, to finally contribute to level the playing field, without necessarily going mainstream themselves.

That is to say, "Make consumers be greener in spite of themselves" -- my paraphrase, not theirs.

That's a less-satisfying conclusion than one would hope. Ideally, consumer product companies and their customers would engage in a robust conversation about how the former can profitably serve the latter's needs in a way that honors people and the planet -- and not simply sneak greener products into the mainstream. It would involve ads and marketing messages that inform, inspire, and incentivize us to change our buying habits -- and to understand how and why we should.

And it would involve more than just the companies themselves. In a briefing book on sustainable consumption and production that I co-authored a few years ago, we laid out five key strategies that would be necessary to accelerate meaningful change: Increasing consumer awareness and choice; promoting innovative policies; accelerating demand for greener products; demanding corporate accountability; and encouraging sustainable business practices. All of these need to work in concert to address the fundamental issues at hand.

It's not that our everyday shopping trips need to be deep-think exercises that ponder the nature of everything we buy -- not that this wouldn't be Nirvana. But the frustrating problem inadvertently raised by Talk the Walk is that fomenting a robust green consumer movement will take much more of a thoughtful, holistic approach to moving the marketplace than most companies are willing to take.

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Right on, Joel! Sustainability isn't a marketing ploy. It's a way of life -- and a way of doing business.

Posted by: Jeremy on 15 Jan 06

This may be a dumb comment - if so, it won't be my first.

It seems that "green" marketing, like any marketing, tries to influence consumer choices. It's trying to say, "Don't buy that Neanderthal brand - our brand is righteous!"

But the subtext is: "Mr. and Ms. Consumer, environmental responsibility is a 'brand', one choice among many."

I'm wondering if, ultimately, sustainability should be marketed as "optional". Because of course, it isn't.

Joel's 5 key strategies seem like a much better place to start.

Posted by: David Foley on 15 Jan 06

I think encouraging people to "buy green" is a waste of time. We have to do something about the ever growing world population. I think we should start with our own country. Inspite of a zero birth rate U.S. population continues to grow due to immigration. The more people the harder it will be on the environment.

Posted by: vimax on 15 Jan 06

By coincidence I have just attended a meeting at the local Friends meeting in which they made recommendations for their lobbying group, FCNL. Here is what they suggested (among others)
0) Work to stop the growth and eventually reduce the world population.
1) Lobby for true costing, so that everything we buy has a price equal to its true cost, including things like military protection of oil supplies, global warming, health, road wear, and so on.
2)Get back the proper relation between corporations and the people. Corporations are not persons. They have a charter to do some good thing, and if they don't they lose their charter. Period.
3)Emphasize the right priorities- the first one being to transfer to the next generation a planet at least as good as the one we started off with.
4) Use our wisdom and technological skills to improve the lot of everyone on the planet. (and that does NOT mean increase the affluence of obese western nations-my note)

Nowhere did anyone suggest that "growth" per se was any priority at all.

BTW I am a god-free liberal geezer way too old to see any personal benefit from any of the above. But I am an optimist- in my lifetime I have seen lots of "impossible" good things happen. Who smokes on airplanes? Where is the leadgas of yesteryear, CFC's etc.

Posted by: wimbi on 15 Jan 06

Marketing is all about the benefits. I benefit by buying green since it makes me healthier and happier and I understand the benefits to the earth as a whole. That's what has to be explained. I know this has to start early. One of my favorite moments was in our local market when a little girl got all excited and shouted, "Oh, look, Mom! ORGANIC cheese!" It's all about educating them young....

Posted by: donna on 15 Jan 06

green consumerism seems to me to be something of a pretty distraction. the strategies proposed are good ones for their stated objective, but they don't get to the fundamental issue. growth, both economic and population, is the train that needs derailing. we cannot sustainably maintain growth in a finite system -- it is that simple. understandably, when dreaming up solutions to the world's ills those that would fix things go for that which seems fixable. the flawed and fundamental basis of our economy and culture admittedly does not. but to tackle anything less seems beside the point.

Posted by: aheartwell on 15 Jan 06

"decidedly finite resources"

Actualy I have seen estimates sugesting that the "resources" available in the solar system are sufficient to support about a trillion trillion times the current human population. So while this may be finite we are so far from the limit as to make it irrelevent.

The key is that a reasouce is not a quantity of atoms, it is the ability to use those atoms/energy to accomplish a productive goal. See Juliam Simon for a historical perspective and Ray Kurzwiel for a glimple of the future.

The focus should be on technology and science development for the law of accelerating returns will trump all others.

Posted by: Rob Sperry on 15 Jan 06

I think happiness is a key issue. Many studies - see work by Richard Layard - show (although it is always difficult to be categoric) that people consume because in order to maintain their current happiness level they want/need to "keep up with the Joneses". This is because happiness tends to be relative (so long as you have achieved a certain base-line level of income).

Finding ways of breaking this cycle seems a good place to start.

Posted by: John Kazer on 16 Jan 06

How about the much more radical idea suggested by many a great political economist of the continental tradition: you have to make capitalism go all the way through, show its real effects and its real logic, after which it gets into its own "aufhebung".

Let's be blunt: capitalism's logic is to produce as cheaply as possible, to sell as much as possible, in order to make as big a profit as possible for an individual body, and all this by externalizing as many costs as possible, while at the same time erasing all traces of this heinous externalisation of real costs.

Why would anyone think that "sustainability" -- a concept which refers to collective goods and the greater good -- has any fundamental place in this basic logic?

Instead of trying to make the capitalist and the consumer act against their nature, it might actually be better to have both of them "going all the way through", through their symptom, so as to create a moment of insight and self-consciousness.

Isn't it better to put someone before a mirror so that he sees himself, instead of just placing more mirrors around him?

Posted by: Lorenzo on 16 Jan 06

The marketing of sustainability is difficult because it is a concept. While few will disagree with the validity of the concept it must be presented to the majority of people in real terms before they will grasp or embrace it.

By real terms I mean a thing or substance that they can acquire and use within their financial limitations and which they need or will personally enjoy. People will prioritize these from their own perspective.

It may well be to some that "environmental consciousness" is high on their agenda. This, however, is frequently an option limited to the higher educated and for this reason is even sometimes derided as elitist. The process of the evangelism of "green" and sustainable products is dependent on introduction into the marketplace of a huge number of these products that will be affordable to ever increasing numbers across the economic and social spectra. It must be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

I do not mean to appear cynical when I say that mass appeal for sustainable products will not come about until the selfish desire of a broad mass of people to acquire them is satisfied, I merely see this as reality.

Philosopy aside, then, I offer this simply as an example. Several years ago, I and a partner became involved in the leisure vehicle or what is commonly called the motorsports market. Our intitial entree was the simple and unadorned electric scooter which became a huge fad in the United States. The quality was poor, parts were difficult to obtain from the factories in China and they did not serve a useful purpose for practical transportation.

We tried the gas consumption models, also from China, and encountered similar problems, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Finally the light came on. Stop right here!

Electric bicycles are a very common mode of transportion in China, a natural extension of their dependency on regular bicycles. The problem was that the electric bicycles made for the domestic China market are not suited to our North American requirements due to their load bearing characteristics, low regulated speed, inferior braking systems and poor ability to negotiate a variety of terrain.

We addressed those problems by improving on the basic designs, increasing the motor size and quality of brake systems and electric components and adding features that appeal to the North American consumer. These include things that may seem frivilous to some such as speed cruise control and anti-theft alarms, however they are simple things that we are used to having on the vehicles we operate every day.

We also addressed the parts availability problem, a serious consideration on the part of North American purchasers.

The electric bicycles are made affordable across the economic spectrum, whether they are used by students commuting around a campus, neighborhood, or taken along as an auxiliary vehicle with the very popular, gas consuming recreational vehicles and mobile homes.

My point is that there are many such needs and market opportunities if one takes the time to identify them and applies the will power to see them through to fruition. Every time a person buys an electric bicycle for their own selfish enjoyment there is one less fossil fuel vehicle in use while they ride it. There is a Chinese expression apropos to this topic, "If you rub and iron pestle enough you can turn it into a needle."

Posted by: James Wood on 16 Jan 06

I very much appreciate your remark, James W. It reminds me of my father's advice re starting a business- "go into either sand and gravel, or sin." His reason was simple- everybody needs sand and gravel, and everybody likes sin.

I have tried to make things that look and feel like sin but are actually good for everybody. Like home power generators running off the existing heating system. Somehow this has turned out to be hard to sell even tho the hardware works great and wouldn't have to cost much.

If you have some clever ways to overcome this little puzzle, please educate me

Posted by: wimbi on 16 Jan 06

Cutting consumer consumption, the 4/40 part, is really hard. You are talking about millions of years of evolution to aquire the things needed to keep your young alive. Sure, it's all out of whack now, but that engine keeps us grasping and grabbing.

The only things which seem to have worked historically are: totalitarian dictatorship where people are physically cut off from things; and religion, where people are cut of from things by a higher purpose or concept.

Which is the carrot and which is the stick? I don't know. Can we live in a Star Trek world of doing good for a higher law? I really hope so.


Posted by: Dean Pajevic on 16 Jan 06

Seems to be a lot of Malthusian assumptions in this group. Even if there's some grain of truth to Malthus, you need to strive for the changes that lead people to make the types of family planning decisions that will get you to slower growth. I don't agree with everything he says by any means, but Jeff Sachs' book is worth a read for a comprehensive strategy for getting the world there humanely. Smart development & poverty reduction = population deceleration & environmental protection.

In the developed world, making headway on the 4/40 gap depends on getting metadata about products available at the point of consumption. WiFi and RFID technology will eventually make this possible. In the meantime, focus should be on using social "web 2.o" internet tools to get bottom-up data on what issues consumers will most pay attention to and slowly adapt their purchasing patterns...IF credible info from experts about 1) what makes the biggest impact 2) which purchase options are best were readily available. The big web portals could become the aggregator for this type of info if they marshalled input from exisiting communities like this one. Once a real & substantial market inpetus was there, market forces would kick in to guide more eco-friendly R&D spending rather than the current token amounts.

Posted by: Kathryn on 16 Jan 06

The development of productive forces is the unconscious history that has actually created and altered the living conditions of human groups — the conditions enabling them to survive and the expansion of those conditions. It has been the economic basis of all human undertakings. Within natural economies, the emergence of a commodity sector represented a surplus survival. Commodity production, which implies the exchange of varied products between independent producers, tended for a long time to retain its small-scale craft aspects, relegated as it was to a marginal economic role where its quantitative reality was still hidden. But whenever it encountered the social conditions of large-scale commerce and capital accumulation, it took total control of the economy. The entire economy then became what the commodity had already shown itself to be in the course of this conquest: a process of quantitative development. This constant expansion of economic power in the form of commodities transformed human labor itself into a commodity, into wage labor, and ultimately produced a level of abundance sufficient to solve the initial problem of survival — but only in such a way that the same problem is continually being regenerated at a higher level. Economic growth has liberated societies from the natural pressures that forced them into an immediate struggle for survival; but they have not yet been liberated from their liberator. The commodity’s independence has spread to the entire economy it now dominates. This economy has transformed the world, but it has merely transformed it into a world dominated by the economy. The pseudonature within which human labor has become alienated demands that such labor remain forever in its service; and since this demand is formulated by and answerable only to itself, it in fact ends up channeling all socially permitted projects and endeavors into its own reinforcement. The abundance of commodities — that is, the abundance of commodity relations — amounts to nothing more than an augmented survival.

Posted by: debord on 16 Jan 06

Well ruminated upon Debord. Reminds me of Thorsten Veblen, however it is a bit off topic. My point is that it is necessary to develop and introduce sustainable products into general use by creating the demand or making the availability known while making them financially obtainable.

Posted by: James Wood on 16 Jan 06

Follow link in the name, perhaps vaguely offtopic, but only because the discussion is misaimed. The issue of "sustainability" is not one to be answered within the world of excess production. Creating demand is the business of the psychoactive arm of the productive economy, and no amount of reigning in or redirecting will change the nature of that economy, which is a self-destructive one.

Posted by: flebord on 17 Jan 06

The definition of the "productive economy" as self-destructive is an oxymoron. It cannot be both productive and self-destructive. The assumption is being made that the economy is driven to excess production.

Economies are geared to measure and fulfill demand. Innovation and development create new products for which demand has not yet been measured. "Demand" per se is not created, it is a product of introduction, reception and measurement. The term "create demand" is nothing more than using available tools to accomplish these ends. Excess production is a fault resulting from incorrect measurement of demand. It is costly economically in both the short and long run because it uses resources that would otherwise be available for more worthwhile endeavours.

Economic philosophers long pre-dating Marx have attempted and failed to redirect "the economy", usually meaning the world economy or human nature. The usual appeals have been made to morality, distribution of wealth to benefit the common man, etc., etc., etc. In truth the redistribution of wealth is nothing more than appeal to individual greed, after all, who is going to benefit the more from it? Enough said, I, myself, am getting off topic.

The world of production is not limited to or even desirous of the consumption of fossil fuels. Dependence on them hinders production and all of the pre- and post-production processes that include energy consumption as a cost of goods sold, transportation, and let us not forget, taxes to generate government revenues. Part of these go to correct the problems caused by the use of the fossil fuels themselves.

The issue of sustainability is to be answered within the world of production, not excess production because that is a faulty path. The thought that one can legislate the use of sustainable products with tangible results in the short term is also faulty. Anyone who has studied basic law knows that when you create a law you create loopholes. That is what keeps lawyers and judges in business. In addition, human nature being what it is, people will ignore or simpy find a way around regulations which they find distasteful.

We cannot declare a "war on pollution". That is a metaphor like the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror". The last thing we need is a new "Sustainability Czar". We have to keep working away at it, enlisting the forces of production (not excess) in the cause. It is like ants chewing away at a bone. Get enough of them chewing and eventually the bone will be cleaned.

Posted by: James Wood on 17 Jan 06

Does anyone know where I can find the full view version of the ad pictured at the outset of this post ("Fuck the Brands...")? I'd really love to read the fine print and see the links. I downloaded the 52 page report but could not find this particular page.

Posted by: Bobby Frank on 17 Jan 06

You can view the full ad Here

Posted by: Joel Makower on 17 Jan 06

Sorry to be negative, but I'm really afraid we are doomed; my boss, who has a M.A and is a self-professed environmentalist, yelled at me today for turning off the xerox machine that no one was using.

"You're obessed, I'm really worried about you, the office isn't closed, leave the xerox machine on!" He said. (Note we are a small office of three and xerox use is not heavy; it often sits there for hours without being used.)

Apparently, the convenience of stand-by start up is too much for people to give up. That is one of the reasons many leave their computers on 24/7(start-up takes too long), and air conditioners are left on at night because "it takes too long to cool off the office in the morning." Sorry, but most people want their conveniences and will only consider giving them up if the sealevel rise has already covered their houses or gas is $20.00 a gallon. And we are self-rightous freaks to suggest otherwise. It is really 4/96, afterall.

Posted by: Tavita on 19 Jan 06



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