Having said that, over the last thirty years, since the first wave of consumer interest in the environment, a number of forward-thinking businesses, political groups, and NGOs have deliberately chosen to make the environment a core aspect of their customer/shareholder/membership proposition. In doing so they have sought to buck the trend by deliberately adding a—difficult to imitate—sense of social purpose to their brands.
Looking back over the last 10 years we can see the contemporary evolution of this trend correlating directly with the rise in public awareness of climate change. In the first instance the extractive industries and insurance sectors were among the first to wake up. This is because they, unlike the retail industry for example, have an inherent interest in the long term (mines, for example, cost a fortune to plan and develop, and don’t deliver a profit for many years). BP offers us the most interesting example; in 2000 the company replaced its shield logo with a new green, white, and yellow logo designed to show the company's commitment to the environment and solar power.
It isn’t necessary to go into the details as to whether this was a successful transformation; it’s suffice to say that BP was a pioneer and therefore suffered some inevitable setbacks along the way.
Very few big, wide-ranging organizations followed BP’s lead, unless of course they were set up specifically to target the environmentally aware segment of the community. Examples of these kinds of organizations include Innocent Smoothies, Dutchy Originals, Howies (acquired by Timberland in 2006) in the UK, Belgium’s Ecover, and California’s American Apparel.
These types of targeted, niche brands have traditionally had a very specific, environmentally and socially aware, committed target audience. Their consumers have tended to be upwardly mobile, educated, and fairly wealthy; therefore the products, ideologies, and brands designed for them have been at the luxury end of the scale and uncompromisingly green. This lack of compromise has a historically restricted appeal.
This has all changed as environmental awareness has grown, and recently niche eco-brands like Ben and Jerry’s and Green and Blacks have seen substantial growth. In fact, the growth has been so substantial that these brands have been snapped up by mainstream multinationals Unilever and Cadburys respectively. This reality, in itself, answers the question that Ron Irwin set in his 2001 brandchannel article: Will green brands continue to grow strong?
Thanks to, among many other things, the activities of prominent individuals like Al Gore and Robert Redford in the US, and Ken Livingstone and Prince Charles in the UK, awareness of key environmental challenges has now reached an all-time high. The recent July 7th Live Earth concerts, and the release of Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest film, The 11th Hour, indicate that this trend is unlikely to subside for some time.
The continued growth of eco-brands is to be expected, but perhaps what is more interesting and less predictable is the attempt, frenzied at times, by many large businesses to emulate this success by integrating environmental messaging into their core brand proposition.
To the external observer this phenomenon has much in common with the early 19th century gold rushes in California. As with the gold rushes, the 21st century greenrush has experienced its early successes and failures. Prominent examples experiencing initial success include: Wal-Mart (Sustainability 360), BSkyB (CarbonNeutral), GE (Ecomagination), Marks and Spencer (Plan A), and Toyota (Hybrid Synergy Drive).
These kinds of behaviors directly and indirectly result in several different outcome: Firstly, in an era of transparency and globalization, they commit the organization to making concrete changes regarding the way it operates. Secondly (and of far more interest to savvy business leaders and politicians), it keys them into the zeitgeist of a generation, developing a sense of organizational relevance, prestige, and modernity.
This second observation provides some insight into why many organizations are desperate to be seen as being “green.” It’s not a fear of environmental risk and exposure; it’s knowledge of the scale of the impending corporate social opportunity (CSO).
As might be expected, politics is not far behind business. Reform to the way that political parties operate and react to public opinion, stimulated by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the late 1990’s, has meant that a new generation of aspiring politicians are “talking climate change,” and altering their brands to reflect this newfound sense of purpose.
In the UK, the Conservative Party under the leadership of David Cameron experienced a transformation, echoing the BP transformation over half a decade previously. As with BP, the transformation has led to the development of a new logo, an un-subtle tree, and a direct catchphrase, “Vote Blue: Go Green.”
In California Arnold Schwarzenegger achieved a similar accomplishment, although his actions have generated a personal brand, and reinforced the external perception of California, rather than directly impacting the image of his political party or country.
The far ranging reach of the current greenrush has meant that globally, individuals are now coming into contact with green political and green business brands and messaging on a regular basis. This increasing familiarity and exposure to background noise has resulted in a growing climate of suspicion. Stakeholders are asking themselves whether the green efforts that they are hearing about are sincere. Many now believe that politicians and business leaders are just developing clever marketing/branding campaigns designed solely to increase sales or votes.
They are of course broadly right; most of the businesses and politicians who are tuning their brands to incorporate environmental messaging are absolutely doing so in order to enhance sales and/or votes. But there is nothing wrong with this enlightened self-interest, provided of course that the green marketing meets reality, and that genuine changes have been made.
This is not always the case, and there are a fair number of what economists call freeriders and environmentalists call greenwashers—people attempting to unjustifiably extract value from the greenrush. This is an increasingly risky position, and will soon become untenable as public interest in, and knowledge about, issues like climate change grows.
The confusion that currently surrounds the greenrush is temporary. In the near future a pale blue/green brand will not be an adequate defence against greenwashing claims.
Of course, that is not to say that organizations should not integrate green messaging (or even the color itself!) into their brand. Quite to the contrary, go ahead, but only if the organization concerned is aware that it is committing itself to a path for the long-term. It will have to walk the talk.