Thou shalt not mislead.

Thou shalt not mislead.

Being green is not, in fact, easy. And mainstream Americans have learned just enough to realize that choosing a green product ain’t all that easy, either. Is the one made with traditional chemicals but made in America greener than the one with natural ingredients but made in China? And what about natural – is it the same as organic, just a little less expensive? And if the company that makes the product doesn’t really seem like a green company, is the product really green?

In an effort to simplify, Americans – for better or worse (and I would say worse) – have crafted some basic “truths” about green-ness:

  • Green = recycled
  • Plastic = bad
  • Chemicals = harsh and, therefore, bad
  • Cutting down trees = the worst

Most of us know that these “truths” aren’t actually true and the story behind each of these statements is really complicated. Yet, in an effort to try to communicate SOMETHING about their sustainability efforts, some companies are perpetuating these myths rather than dispelling them. And that’s no good.

Full disclosure on the example I’m about to give:  Georgia-Pacific is a Shelton Group client.

A few weeks ago, on my way to speak at the NAHB’s green building conference, I popped into a casual dining establishment outside of Nashville, where I went to the ladies’ room and saw a sticker plastered to the GP paper towel dispenser.

This restaurant chain is attempting to tell some sort of corporate sustainability story to its customers, presumably so its customers will feel better about it and want to eat there more often. But this is so far off the mark.

First of all – Remember where these come from? They come from farms. Most consumers – and apparently the folks in sustainability and marketing at the restaurant’s HQ – don’t realize that the trees used to make paper towels and toilet paper are planted just like any other crop for the express purpose of becoming paper towels and toilet paper. Not that the problem of clear-cutting and rainforest devastation doesn’t exist – of course it does – but that’s not connected to GP’s products. Cutting down trees for the paper towels in the bathroom at Restaurant X is as terrible as cutting down the corn stalks for the tortilla chips that come with its guacamole appetizer.

Secondly, the whole tree/paper thing doesn’t align with the restaurant’s brand, so it doesn’t fit as a sustainability platform. In short, it’s wasted marketing money. According to our forthcoming Eco Pulse™ 2012 study, the number one sustainability issue Americans feel most guilty about is food waste. Restaurant X could craft a real win for themselves here.  They could take a stand on food waste and begin communicating to its patrons all the ways in which they’re working to reduce food waste, essentially giving customers a reason to feel guilt free (and better) about eating there. It will make a lot more sense to consumers for a restaurant to tackle food waste than paper waste.  And that’s how you win with a sustainability platform – align it with what consumers already think to ultimately enhance your brand.

So if you find yourself in need of a little alignment, our doors are open (to you, too, Restaurant X). C’mon in – we’re happy to help you define and leverage your sustainability story to gain a market advantage.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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