Hey, Corporate America, It’s Time to Think about Products

By Jacquelyn A. Ottman

In Business, September 2003

In the early 1990s, McDonald's created a stir when it unveiled its "quilt-wrap" alternative to bulky stryrofoam clamshells. In so doing, it ushered in a new era of corporate environmental management focused on products. In other words, instead of merely cleaning up its manufacturing processes to prove it was a conscientious corporate citizen, McDonald's rallied behind a highly conspicuous product. The effort catapulted the fast food giant to the top of the corporate responsibility list, unshackling their "toxic" image.

Our conclusion: Focusing on "eco-innovative" products can provide more leverage in corporate green communications efforts than the traditional emphasis on filtering the smoke stacks or lowering the office lights.

Why? Products and their marketing are highly visible to the general public. Eco-innovation signals corporate social responsibility, innovation, and competitiveness. These in turn ignite the enthusiasm and commitment of the public, the media, employees, investors, and other stakeholders. It's not undeserved, either. Product design is a critical determinant of a corporation's environmental impact. An estimated 75% of the environmental impact of a product is determined at the design stage. The product is developed over a few months to a few years, but its impact during and/or after use can span generations.

Polls show that products and their usage are central to how Americans express their concern for the environment. Americans look for eco-labels at the store, turn off the lights when leaving a room, and recycle more often than they write letters to Congress or attend environmental events. Roper's Green Gauge poll shows a growing tendency towards "pro-cotting" - buying products from companies perceived as having good environmental track records.

To boot, 50% of Americans say they would do more for the environment, but don't know how. So, a tremendous opportunity exists for businesses to use green products and their marketing messages to educate consumers, and thus establish themselves as environmental leaders rather than defensive polluters.

With the Bush administration's lax approach on the environment, planet-concerned citizens are taking the responsibility for clean-up into their own hands. Their focus: products! For example, the SUV is now under considerable fire from the likes of the Sierra Club, "What Would Jesus Drive Coalition" and other vocal groups for dismal fuel efficiency scores.

Meanwhile, others in the auto and oil industries are gathering green kudos for taking serious steps toward eco-innovation. The Prius, a hybrid engine sedan, put Toyota on the map as a credible, proactive company that is looking for solutions. The product itself makes a splash for its innovative, quiet technology in addition to being friendly to the planet.

Meanwhile, GM and Ford are losing ground on the environmentally conscious front and tarnishing their image as innovators by pulling highly visible new green electric vehicle products from the market like the EV-1 and the Th!nk Mobility! Line. Their corporate environmental marketing campaigns are glaringly empty of meaning or credibility. These companies and others like them are putting out ads with broad claims about "driving towards sustainability" and "making the world a better place," without anything to back up them up. Watch out Detroit - Consumers are smarter than that!

BP has a good product story to tell, with solid evidence of its commitment to green energy. While their approach goes above and beyond that of other oil companies, their marketing approach is one of appropriate humility that admits its own guilt while setting the stage for conversion to alternative energy sources. Meanwhile, Exxon's green ads talk about finding more oil! Wake up, Exxon!

Learn from the lessons above. Project a positive image for your corporation by taking the following product-oriented initiatives:

  1. Communicate to all stakeholders via regular "Environmental Progress" reports. Answer Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) questionnaires promptly and fully.
  2. Make the commitment to develop eco-innovative products. Strive for - and communicate - an ideal goal of "zero"- zero waste, zero energy, zero environmental impact.
  3. Follow the footsteps of Fujio Cho of Toyota and John Brown of BP and voice commitment from the highest levels (CEO) of the company.
  4. Educate consumers about what they can do to let them know how your product can help them lead a more "sustainable" lifestyle.

Jacquelyn Ottman  is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., a New York-based marketing consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses derive competitive advantage from eco-innovation and green marketing. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, 2nd edition.

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