Green Marketing Lessons for Entrepreneurs

Transparency , product stewardship or life cycle management are some of the key hallmarks of any business, especially eco-centric businesses. Ben Grossman, through his guest lecture at Tufts University wants to bring home the point that a business can improve its branding and green marketing by concentrating on the basics. 

I had the privilege of guest lecturing at Tufts University in late February to a class titled “Social Marketing.”  I focused my presentation on green marketing and sustainability, with a particular emphasis on the importance of transparency.  In addition, I spent some time on product lifecycle management, which I’ve been interested in for a while, and have been learning a lot more about through my membership on the Product Stewardship Institute Advisory Council.

I’m pleased to include a selection of slides that I discussed in class below:


During the conversation, I covered a number of topics that we have reviewed at Sustainable Ink, the most important being the issue of transparency.  As we have been advocating for years, when companies make green claims, they need to back those claims up with hard data.  In the commercial printing world, a great example is the Environmental Defense Fund Paper Calculator, which I covered here back in 2007.

I provided a best practice example, which I wrote about in July 2009, about the use of eco-logos and statistics on the outside envelope of a fundraising appeal by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which was signed by former Vice President Al Gore.

I then went on to discuss an example of greenwashing by a major company, SC Johnson, in their creation of Greenlist.  Terrachoice, a leading environmental marketing agency, defines greenwashing as

“the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

SC Johnson created the program in 2001 and started putting its Greenlist logo on products in 2008 to indicate that one of their products met certain environmental standards.  The problem was that SC Johnson made the logo look very official, which gave many consumers the idea that it was rated by an outside organization, which it was not.  Two class action lawsuits were filed against SC Johnson, which they settled in 2011, by agreeing not to use the Greenlist logo on Windex moving forward.  Here’s an excellent article on the settlement by GreenBiz.  Here’s a quote from Fisk Johnson, SC Johnson’s chairman and CEO, that sums up the issue of greenwashing very well:  “In retrospect. we could have done a better job at being more transparent and clearer with our label and what it meant.”

Following this discussion, I reviewed Poland Spring’s 5-gallon “Eco Sense Bottle” that it unveiled in 2010.  When I first saw the bottle on one of my office’s water coolers, I did some investigating, and wrote an article about it, which is still the most read post on my blog over the past 5 years.  The reason I wrote about the bottle was that it had an environmental logo with no explanation of what the logo meant.  I spoke with a representative who told me that the bottle used less plastic and was easier to recycle.  I did not believe this was greenwashing, but rather, as I wrote 2 years ago, “a failure of a major brand to provide clarity on its green claims…Poland Spring went to the trouble of trademarking ‘eco-sense’ and creating a special logo for the term, but they didn’t take the extra step of providing consumers an explanation of what the term means.”

Lifecycle Management

The next part of the discussion focused on product lifecycle management and the importance of reducing the use of resources in packaging.  To create these slides, I was lucky to get help from Scott Cassel, the founder and CEO of Product Stewardship Institute.  The example I provided was Staples, and its pioneering computer “take back” program, which, according to the company, allows consumers to “securely recycle your end-of-life technology.”  These programs prevent a large number of devices from being thrown away, reducing the presence of hazardous materials in the waste stream.  Staples was the first major retailer to offer such a program, and it had a significant impact on its industry; Best Buy, Office Depot and a range of other firms have followed suit.  Not only is this good for the environment, and convenient for consumers, but it has been good for Staples as well – studies have shown that this program increased consumer loyalty to the chain.

Packaging and Branding
I closed out the formal part of the program with a discussion about packaging, and how reducing the resources needed to make products can have a significant impact on a company’s brand.  Over the last decade, Wal-Mart, the leading retailer in the world, has suffered a number of public relations issues, with many focused on its treatment of workers.  In addition, very few retailers have had a more significant positive environmental impact on their industry or suppliers than Wal-Mart.  There is a wide array of information on Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts on its website, including its creation of a Sustainability Index, its efforts to create zero waste, as well as its aggressive efforts to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.  I focused the conversation on one example of Wal-Mart exerting its influence on a supplier to effect significant change in its industry.  The supplier was Tide, and the result was a packaging revolution.  Several years ago, Wal-Mart set a goal of only selling concentrated liquid laundry detergent in all of its U.S. and Canadian stores. The program was a success, and the entire industry has been transformed.  In addition, because of this and a number of other initiatives, consumers have easier access to more environmentally-friendly products, and Wal-Mart’s reputation has been partially rehabilitated.

The students, all of whom are undergraduate students at Tufts University, had a wide range of interesting and insightful questions and comments.  I was honored to have had the opportunity to spend the evening with them!

This post is written by Ben Grossman. It originally appeared on Sustainable Ink and was cross-posted with permission.

Ben Grossman is Co-President of Grossman Marketing Group. He and his team work with clients to help them identify environmentally-conscious business practices as a way to differentiate them from their competition and establish a competitive advantage. Ben has worked as a strategy consultant to Fortune 500 clients and was the 2009 recipient of the New England Direct Marketing Association Prodigy Award, a prestigious marketing award for young professionals under 30.

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  • Emily Williams

    Great suggestions and ideas if you’re about to launch your own business or product. I would add that it’s critical to learn about the process of getting your product to market or your business off the ground. I’m in the process of starting my own business and product. Andrea Belz’ book Product Development has been a tremendous help to me as I’ve put the pieces in place for the launch. A mentor recommended it to me and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have an MBA and is making a go of a new product launch on their own.

  • Fernando Francisca

    All advances around the position of production and consumption are always welcome to this world so chaotic. But my opinion resides on a single point of view and in fact will tie all other points of view. We’re not changing our habits of consumption and therefore little is effective in an attempt to change the route of the abyss where we are going.
    Each year, the business policies of consumption, with the government push us to walk over their own car and strengthens individualism. And without wanting to appear negative, changing the way we package our stuff, or even buying a product for the information obtained assures us that the company has a sustainable concern, will not in any way guarantee that we did something for the distant future. We are only delaying a sad end.
    The new wave of time, “Green Economy” can not consider, as it will replace in 50 years our desire to consume everything that is new and ruling the world. And the excuse that there is consensus that we have to think about the future is still not working. Increasingly we are bombarded with the only message that everyone understands,” consume more than you could handle”. For now, we’re just playing to be worried. But ultimately, we will not live forever.