It's the environment, stupid


Amid signs that we may be reaching a tipping point on the road to serious environmental action, green consumerism is coming out of its niche and into the mainstream, providing an unprecedented business opportunity for both products and services.

Watching this year's British political conference season has made me think we may just be reaching a tipping point on the road to serious environmental action.

The husky-hugging, cycling, wind turbine-owning Conservative Leader David Cameron obviously sees the environment as an issue where he can outflank Labour in his search for the apocryphal 'middle ground'. Blair and Brown have already moved to shield this perceived Achilles heel, signing a climate change treaty with Arnold Schwarzenegger, pledging to reverse the decline in bus use and promising a new renewable energy fund.

Meanwhile, sensing a squeeze in the area where they traditionally out perform their larger counterparts, the Lib Dems have proposed sweeping changes to the tax system, tilting away from taxing income and towards penalising consumption.

While in the UK we are unlikely to see anything as radical as Arnie the Terminator suing major motor manufacturers for billions of dollars' of environmental damage, this is a quantum leap forward from last year, where all the parties thought they were being cutting edge simply by making the conferences 'carbon neutral'.

The focus is shifting, too, from the production of goods and services, to the other, more tricky, side of the equation, namely consumption. There is finally a realisation that an economy in which it is much cheaper to fly from London to Edinburgh than take the train, will never be sustainable in the environmental sense.

To do anything meaningful about pressing issues such as climate change, such 'perverse incentives' as the tax breaks on airline fuel will have to be removed.

The general public has traditionally been reluctant to accept responsibility for the impacts of their lifestyle, preferring to point the finger at the authorities or industry. But there is growing evidence in the media that consumers may now be receptive.

There's been a rash of TV programmes in the UK such as 'How Green is Your House', 'No Waste Like Home' and 'It Ain't Easy Being Green'. The heavyweight daily newspapers - The Times, Independent and Guardian - offer regular eco-living columns. Even tabloid the Sun has jumped on the bandwagon, sexing up sustainability with images of a hot-bodied model couple sharing a bath.

And who would have thought that a film of a legendarily wooden US President-manque giving a Powerpoint presentation would be the documentary hit of the season?

Evidence of a large scale shift in spending is also growing

Out on the high street, evidence of a large scale shift in spending is also growing. The market share of A-rated white goods (the most energy-efficient) has risen from 0 per cent in 1996/97 to 74 per cent in 2005/06. In the food sector, demand for organic products is far outstripping supply. And soon DIY chain B&Q are going to start stocking wind turbines for domestic use.

If this nexus of political will and consumer concern occurs, it will kick 'green consumerism' out of its niche and into the mainstream, providing an unprecedented business opportunity for both products and services.

Hitting a consumer wave at the right time has made many people rich, but, unfortunately, the green market has claimed many victims in the past. Too many well meaning products end up in what US green marketing guru Jacquelyn Ottman calls the "Green Graveyard", making the fatal assumption that Green credentials can overcome mediocre performance, poor design and, frankly, soppy branding.

Successful green products, Ottman argues, look good, perform well and are branded to make clear the benefits of the product to the user rather than the planet.

To take an everyday example, the highly energy efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb initially flopped. Its first major manufacturer, Phillips, packaged it as the 'Earth Light' with its box decorated with mountains and trees. Consumers didn't bite.

A quick redesign of product and branding produced the 'Marathon', a macho name with its packaging festooned with claims of financial savings through long life and lower energy bills. It flew off the shelves and is fast becoming the standard type of bulb in many people's eyes.

My advice for anyone wishing to enter the green marketplace is to treat it like any other.

Get the product/service right: design a good product with excellent performance and a competitive price. Then get the marketing right: focus on the performance first, only make robust, defensive green claims, and push other benefits.

Lastly I would recommend anyone with a green product or service to consider developing markets.

I recently travelled across China by train and saw village after village of modest shacks, each with a brand new shiny solar hot water panel on the roof. If a country of 1.3 billion people wants Western standards of living without Western levels of consumption, then green products and services are going to go very big indeed.


About The Author

Gareth Kane
Gareth Kane

Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, speaker, trainer, coach and author. He has worked with hundreds of organisations, from small local companies to trans-national corporations, to help them get the most from the sustainability agenda.