What to do when there’s no perfect solution

What to do when there’s no perfect solution

As I recently ran an Internet query on an energy-related issue, an ad reading “Ethanol mandates fuel hunger” popped up. It caught my interest since I’ve been following the discussion surrounding ethanol mandates for some time. The position of the group sponsoring the ad, SmarterFuelFuture.org, is that ethanol mandates are harming the environment, increasing hunger, and have the potential to hurt car engines.

What? Ethanol is supposed to be a sustainable solution!

To be honest, I wasn’t actually surprised by this campaign. These complaints have been heard since the introduction of ethanol-blended gasoline. What was surprising to me was the number and variety of the industries that have joined together in support of this cause. I expected petroleum industry sponsors, but I was surprised to see poultry, meat and dairy producers, along with boating, motorcycle and snow mobile manufacturers all collaborating to oppose the mandates.

This issue exemplifies what is possibly the biggest challenge sustainability advocates and communicators face: the lack of a perfect solution. I’ll exercise the arguments over ethanol as an example.

I’ve (personally) agreed that ethanol mandates are not a great idea for one simple reason: fuel efficiency. According to the EPA, E10, which is 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline, generates 96.7% of the energy of standard gasoline. But my own experiments (yes, this is what I do) with E10 vs. pure gasoline (when you could still get it) consistently showed a loss of mileage of more like 10% for my vehicle. So, my bottom-line takeaway has been that I’m using more gas and spending more money.

But the argument for ethanol is largely centered on air quality and reducing CO2 and other toxic emissions – which is important. But even the environmental benefits of ethanol are murky because it creates a sustainability quandary: air, land, water or food?

The Smarter Fuel Future group maintains that 5 million acres of wilderness have been lost to corn crops, further resulting in increased pollution in America’s waterways. And as protecting our water sources grows in importance among environmental concerns, we not only have to consider the pollution impact, but the amount of water it takes to grow these crops. Plus, they claim that ethanol’s share of corn production has reduced the availability of corn for food stocks (both for animals and humans), thereby increasing food prices.

The seemingly obvious solution lies in reduced reliance on gas (and ethanol) through the sale of more EVs (electric vehicles), right?

Maybe not. Most utilities still rely, primarily, upon coal-fired generation (and will, for some time). This greatly reduces the carbon footprint improvement EVs can provide in many markets. However, as the U.S. moves toward more electricity produced from natural gas and renewables, EVs will provide a definite contribution to improved air quality.

But wait! What about the holistic life cycle impact of hybrid and electric vehicles? Some say they’re really not better due to materials, manufacturing and (particularly) battery disposal impact. While a few studies, including one from Renault, support the notion that the life cycle assessment of electric vehicles is better than gas/diesel vehicles (worse during manufacturing, but far better over their serviceable lifetime), this issue is still hotly debated.

Does your head hurt yet? Many of our clients face these kinds of challenges. What do you do when there is no clear sustainable winner? What do you do when there is a downside for every “more sustainable” alternative?

You choose the best solution you can and communicate authentically. The worst possible reaction is to get stuck in a sustainability quagmire and not act at all. And acting without openly discussing your choices is more likely to shift you into a defensive posture.

The good news is that consumers don’t expect perfection; they expect effort and improvement. Most consumers “get” that there are few perfect solutions. We’ve watched them chase their tails in focus groups and second guess themselves on issues like this for years. Most get the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation that many companies are in because those who care often experience the same quandaries in their own household purchasing decisions.

Report your initiatives and acknowledge both the pros and cons of your actions clearly and transparently. While advocacy groups might never be completely mollified, you’ll help remove some fuel from their fire, and consumers will more likely believe and appreciate your efforts.


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Posted on

July 16, 2014

About the Author

Jim Lyza

Jim Lyza

Jim is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and GreenBiz.com.

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Matt Brass

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Courtnay Hamachek

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Courtnay oversees our day-to-day operations to keep us running smoothly and support our growth. She establishes project management systems and processes to help our teams anticipate bottlenecks, prevent process issues, and keep projects on time and on target. Courtnay has built extensive experience over 25 years in all aspects of marketing, from account services and project management to design and production.

Aaron Crecy

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Aaron is responsible for planning, executing and measuring digital marketing strategies for Shelton Group and our clients, with an emphasis on inbound, content, SEO, social media, email and paid initiatives. He constantly researches and explores new tactics and strategies to improve digital campaign performance and results.

Aaron brings to the table more than 20 years of marketing leadership experience with premium consumer-facing brands. He came to Shelton Group by way of Malibu Boats, where, as Director of Global Marketing, he oversaw strategic marketing planning and execution for multiple product lines, with specific emphasis on social media and digital. Prior to that, he served as CMO for a leading daily fantasy sports operator, guiding it from startup to the industry’s third-ranked site.

Scot Case

Senior Consultant

A sustainability strategy consultant since 1993, Scot has served as non-profit leader, as a partner in an environmental marketing firm that he grew and sold, and as an executive in a multi-billion-dollar, international company. He has published dozens of articles and case studies, was co-author of the original “Sins of Greenwashing” study, testified before Congress, and been quoted on NPR, Good Morning America, CNN, The New York Times, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal. Scot was also highlighted in an Emmy award-winning documentary on sustainable purchasing.

Casey Ward

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Casey manages our relationships, growth and development with a specific group of clients that includes Environmental Defense Fund, Cotton LEADS and CertainTeed Insulation. She provides leadership and support for the account team members who manage the day-to-day processes for these clients. She contributes to strategic direction for each client and guides our creative efforts to ensure everything we do builds toward meeting – or exceeding – the client’s goals. Her ability to simultaneously see the big picture and pay close attention to the details helps her champion her clients’ needs and identify new growth opportunities for them.