Green marketing

Last updated: Jan 2010


Green marketing with John Grant


To many in the ethical consumption movement, marketing is a dark art synonymous with greenwash. So what to make of a marketing guru who wants to use “green marketing” as a Trojan horse, smuggling ethics and green lifestyles into the citadel of consumer society?

John Grant was co-founder of St Luke’s, a socially aware London ad agency that had Body Shop on its books and operated as an ‘employee shareholder democracy’. Since leaving St. Luke’s in 1999 John has worked as a consultant on marketing and sustainability for both businesses and NGOs. His 'The New Marketing Manifesto' was in Amazon's Top Ten Business Books of 1999. More recently, he wrote 'The Green Marketing Manifesto' (2007). A lifelong vegetarian, he’s also the man who convinced Unilever to launch the Vegetable Oxo Cube. We caught up with John to find out how “green” and “marketing” could fit together.


EC: Marketing has a bad reputation amongst a lot of people in the green movement, as a driver of consumption. What can “green marketing” do to drive positive change?

JG: Marketing is a very broad term, a bit like saying ‘media’. Consumerism has a very bad rap, and rightly so in retrospect. The only thing that could be said in its defence is it is just the visible tip of a whole media-industrial-celebrity complex. Although it is very much the business end of that system; 75% of US GDP is consumer spending.

Green consumerism I am a bit dubious about. We live a very pampered wasteful lifestyle in the developed world and buying things in eco chic materials as ethical treats strikes me as potentially supporting that status quo.

What marketing (some of the skills, techniques and insights we have gathered in the last 70 years) can do to drive positive behaviour change is two things:

1.Engagement and education. Help people wake up to the reality of the risks and opportunities ahead; inspire, reframe, adjust ‘the world in our worldview’. The general finding from marketing over the last 15 years is that such shifts are achieved not by mass media propaganda (ads with polar bears in) but through engagement; examples range from Twitter to Transition Towns. Really what you want these days is a sort of citizen co-marketing. That was true long before green marketing came along, but is highly relevant to it.

2. Create new markets for the common good. The famous examples are mostly ‘cleantech’, but a lot of my interest and hope at the moment is directed towards local, organic, seasonal veg. Farming done right would lead to massive soil sequestration, healthy diets and tastier food. It’s also more productive per acre than industrial, chemical monoculture. And creates nicer jobs than call centres. This is something that consumer choice could tip; supermarkets will give us anything we want (for instance their refusing GMO in the UK was very much the result of public demand and concern). But to mobilize consumer choice means to engage and educate too.


EC:You're on record as saying “We can't leave 'green' to the old greens anymore”. What do you mean by that?

JG: Did I say that? On the other hand I’m turning into more of an ‘old green’ myself as years go by! I think what I may have meant to say is that the ‘green’ lifestyle clique and its extensions into communications can be preachy and exclusive; the language, dress sense, cultural codes, tone of voice. What we need is a new common sense. And a clique or tribe (unintentionally) excluding people who aren’t like them, can work against that. I like DoTheGreenThing’s work; they make some of the most persuasive green films & animations in the world, without being quite so beardy about it. “Easy on the meat” is a particular favourite of mine.

The challenge is to make doing the green thing normal. So it won’t even look “green”, just normal. That’s been the achievement of the IT industry over the last 40 years. There has always been a beardy, geeky, innovative fringe – but using a computer is no longer their exclusive preserve. That’s the journey green stuff has to go on. And is already. Look at the advance of cycling. Or grow your own vegetables. Last year for the first time since the war more vegetable seeds were sold in this country than flower seeds. It’s what the permaculturalists have been arguing for since the 1970s but it is happening now in middle England in a very ‘normal’ sort of way.


EC:At a conference I went to last year on Green Marketing I was surprised to find the hot topic among marketing people there was how to resist the  pressure from other areas of the business to produce greenwash. Is greenwash dead?

JG: No it’s alive and well. Greenwash in my view (quite a strict definition) is making environmental claims in advertising and PR that your product, service or company are greener than others There are exceptions, but generally I think it’s a bad idea. It’s not credible, it’s not that compelling as marketing and it also backfires when someone challenges it. I’d rather see companies put their money into green innovation and education. Develop a new market – like local, organic, seasonal cafes – and educate your customers to prefer it. From that point of view I think I am more of a fan of M&S’ “Look Behind the Label”, or indeed their Oxfam second hand promotion than of “Plan A”. I’m a big fan of them having a Plan A of course, I am only talking about them promoting their brand on the back of it.


EC: In your book you talk about working with IKEA on their, very credible, sustainability programme – and advising them not to promote it to the public at all. In effect your advice was 'Don't tell people you've gone green'. Why?

JG: Because they aren’t green. They are a ‘slightly less bad’ global retailer. Well more than ‘slightly’ - their sustainability efforts are impressive. But they aren’t perfect. They agreed readily with this by the way, it’s a much more Swedish way of look at things. You don’t boast. Even here you don’t do ads saying ‘fewer people got food poisoning in our canteens this year’ - so why would you do ads saying ‘our carbon intensity is getting lower’?

The other reason was people already trust IKEA. In Sweden one survey showed that they are more trusted than churches and government added together. Outside Sweden, their Swedishness leads us to expect high standards They did not one piece of ‘eco’ advertising in 2007, the same year that GE spent $100m on “Ecoimagination”. In a survey at the end of that period people were asked which companies they thought are doing a lot for the environment these days? IKEA came 7th. GE came 9th.


EC: How do you think the recession is affecting the ethical market, and business appetite for sustainability?

JG: Organic has had a hard time. It isn’t really clear why. Some think because the supermarkets price promoted the cheap alternatives, so the differential became much higher. Others that organic’s new market was buying it as a luxury, something they cut back on when things got tougher. I’ve heard things have been improving across this year, we will have to see. Meanwhile Fairtrade is booming and many ethical markets are buoyant.

Businesses seem just as interested in sustainability as a few years ago, perhaps even more so. I don’t know if any programmes in businesses which are making large cuts are safe. But I do believe that the really big companies are quite genuinely committed by now. They just see that this is the way the world is going. They can no more ignore it than they could (wisely) ignore the internet 15 years ago. And the smart and ambitious companies realize that here is another opportunity to get ahead.


EC: Consumer brands are vulnerable to challenge from campaigners – and that can drive real change. Just look at the recent success of Greepeace's Amazon campaign in getting commitments from the leather and beef industry on deforestation. But negative associations with brands stick – two thirds  of people who boycott a brand never go back to it – whatever the company does. And there's enormous cynicism about corporate claims. Is there a danger that generalised cynicism actually undermines business' motivation to make positive changes? And should organisations like Ethical Consumer spend as much time congratulating multinationals as criticising them?

JG: Generally I think joycotting is the first option rather than boycotting these days; for instance like Greenpeace’s ‘Green My Apple’ campaign. I still think there is a place for activism because it gets multinationals attention. It is in business terms a “risk” to brand value and share price – something the directors are directly accountable for. It was that specific fear that got some of the big companies rethinking in the 1990s. In general I don’t think people realize the power that the public will – when aligned and directed at change – can have on governments, corporates, media and so on. The trouble with activism can be that it brands the opposition as ‘fringe’ extremists and allows the public sympathy to side with the ‘normal’ business people who are just trying to do their jobs? Whereas done right, as in Hugh’s Chicken Run, the public indignation sides with the poor chickens and against the abusive nature of industrial farming. Generally it works better when you see little underdogs struggling against the big bad system (like McLibel).

I’m not sure either congratulations or criticisms achieve much by the way. I’m with Woody Allen on this one (breaking into an art opening discussion of a “witty piece” in the New Yorker about the fascists on Long Island). The bit of activism that is a universal truth is the action. To make change you have to DO something. Vote, buy, refuse to buy, walk, dig, persuade…


EC:Bad news sells newspapers, but not much else. And it's been said Martin Luther King's world-changing speech was “I have a dream” not “I have a nightmare”. Are there lessons from green marketing for campaigners wanting to “market green”?

JG: The “I have a dream speech” is often put forward to argue for a sort of “sell them the aspiration” green consumerism. It’s a travesty for one thing, in misrepresenting one of the greatest speeches ever. (It’s not John Lennon’s “Imagine” you know!) It’s a thundering speech, the voice of the disposed, the beaten. And yet the indomitability of being in the right – “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of the nation” – as he says at the start. Martin Luther King talks of the “vicious racists” of Alabama”, of “police brutality”. And he warns of the world of pain that awaits if America believes there can be any return to “business as usual” or any attempt to resort to “gradualism”. They had come to Washington to cash a cheque; a “promissory note”, called the American Constitution which said that all men were equal. Yes he had a dream. But it wasn’t a soft soap fantasy. It’s interesting by the way how extensively Obama’s speeches borrow from this; his inauguration speech was littered with references and their key message on climate is a direct quote: “the fierce urgency of now”. That’s real leadership, not skirting around the issue as some think tanks advise!

As far as ‘marketing green’ goes (or marketing anything in fact) you are already lost if you are looking for the universal panacea. You are never marketing ‘green’. You are marketing driving a bit less. A nice smoothie (buy one get one tree). A new leader in smart cities and cleantech (Cisco). Why these might have the same tone of voice or strategy is beyond me.

As far as not mentioning climate change, which is what most people arguing the ‘dream’ view argue, that’s a very dangerous line. Not everything has to be gloomy. 90% of what I work on is about grabbing people with enthusiasm and hope, not guilt. But do you really think people would willingly eat margarine if they had never even heard of heart disease? That you could sell it on the taste or recipes, or even the price?

Another fallacy in my view is the intention-action gap. The truth is very, very few people are remotely worried about climate change. In a massive and robust poll in the USA (by Pew) it just fell from 17th to 20th (out of 20) in a list of ‘what should be our government’s priority. In this list economy is up, terrorism is down and climate change remains what it always was; a total after thought. It was Al Gore who pointed out that there were as many mentions of UFOs as there was of Climate Change in the early stages of the last US presidential elections. If you think that people have had enough climate change rammed down their throats and so on (‘eco fatigue’ blah blah) you couldn’t be more wrong.

Another beef I have with the ‘I have a dream’ lobby is that they are saying that most people are basically bad and have to be bribed or tempted into doing the right thing. That’s rubbish. The people I meet in focus groups are decent hard working people – the sorts of people who take a second job to support their kids’ education. When you talk with them about the Stern Report for instance; the fact that climate change won’t just affect weather but jobs, food, energy, security, the whole banking system (again) they really sit up and say yes, “that just makes common sense”. You don’t need to be bribed or flattered or fooled into avoiding danger. You just need to be given the steering wheel and a clear view up the road. It’s bringing people into the conversation as citizens that’s the key step in my view.


EC:  You've talked about a post-brand paradigm. Does that mean an end to the power of brands?

JG: It could do. There’s something about brands that feels out of joint today. They were invented to give personality and appeal to anonymous, identical, industrial goods. And today we are into a media paradigm which is intensely personal and connective; for instance Kiva is one product of that. Compare two toasters. One a Philips “Toaster 2000”, shiny and on a pedestal in a retail display. Who really gives a stuff about that toaster these days? The other toaster is on eBay and it comes with a long story about how this toaster was a wedding present but the night before the groom did something he shouldn’t have and now the wedding presents are all up for auction. Now that is an interesting toaster, it has a real story. Just as the chess set my grandfather made for me has a story. If that all sounds theoretical and not something that could be applied in the real world check out “Kept” (from More Associates) or “Glove Love” (from Do the Green Thing) or indeed most of

On the other hand do I think the power of symbolism, myth, power words, archetypes and so on – the things that brands and mass media tapped into, albeit at quite a superficial level – are waning? No way. It’s still the case that twins found dark empires (Microsoft is today’s Rome) and that St Joan always gets betrayed by her own followers (Body Shop). I’m with Terry Pratchett; we are shaped by stories rather than the other way around. And understanding the place of narratives in everything we’ve been talking about, including those of brands and companies, has become more relevant (because we need to shift things not just reinforce them) not less.


EC: If you had one piece of advice for budding green entrepreneurs, what would it be?

JG: Spend a lot of time on finding and redefining the problem. Many start-ups are ingenious solutions to slightly ‘so what?’ questions. Which is a tragedy given both the amount of human effort and passion that goes into them and also the very real and hugely pressing problems that do need fixing. Focusing on the problem gets you out of the faddish trap many fall into of ‘flavour of the month’ start-ups. True, investors quite like these trends. But all the really successful start-ups in history were more in the spirit of William Blake’s “I must invent a system or be enslav’d by another man’s”.