Green Ideas Take Root in Business

For U.S. companies, going green has never looked so good.In one of the most dramatic turnabouts in corporate America, previously environmentally apathetic businesses of all sizes and in all industries are rushing to portray themselves as Earth-friendly or touting the eco-friendly aspects of their newest products.

Hardly a day goes by without announcements hawking the latest green initiative, new store or design. Corporate executives are flocking to green-marketing seminars. Even the Business Roundtable, a group of 160 chief executives of major U.S. companies, recently sounded the alarm about the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

In Michigan, it's playing out in everything from landscape services selling special lawn-care programs to protect the watershed to energy-saving skylights and refrigerated cases at a new Wal-Mart set to open Wednesday in Livonia. A Grand Rapids firm has rolled out the first tradeshow exhibit system made of recyclable and renewable materials.

With rising numbers of consumers awakened to the threat of global warming, being seen as green has become a competitive advantage, some marketing experts say. "It's sort of sexy to be green," said Bonnie Carlson, president of the Promotion Marketing Association. "Corporations are jumping on the bandwagon because there's a real positive halo attached to that position."
At the same time, businesses' environmental records face more scrutiny. Climate Counts, a new nonprofit, has evaluated and ranked the climate-change efforts of 56 large companies. Consumers can download free pocket guides with the rankings.

The growth of green marketing
But image isn't the only motivation. Green products often command premium prices. And reducing energy usage helps companies save money. In addition, companies in certain industries such as oil and gas hope to stave off tough climate-change regulations by selling themselves as environmentally conscious, said Thomas Lyon, a professor of sustainable science, technology and commerce at the University of Michigan's business school.

Various industries are "now positioning themselves for a carbon-constrained world," he said. U-M also has tapped into this market. Lyon heads the school's Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, which offers a 3-year program that allows students to earn a master of science degree from the School of Natural Resources and Environment and an MBA.

"The challenge is to take something that is not naturally green and make it into a green product," said Sun Yu, president of Berkley-based Zen Design Group, which created a line of electronic toys that doesn't use disposable batteries.

Green marketing takes many forms, from traditional advertising to sponsorships of environmental groups or events such as the recent Live Earth concerts.

As it has spread, it also has become increasingly sophisticated. Gone are the days when companies simply labeled themselves or their products as green. Now, businesses must explain how they're green and advertise in multiple venues, not just television, said David Lockwood, research director at Mintel, a Chicago market research firm.

"Green awareness has progressed to the point where there is skepticism," he said. Lockwood and other marketing experts also warn that selling a product based on its green attributes alone often doesn't work. Ironically, to be successful, companies also must offer some non-green value, such as greater convenience or savings.

"The trick is to have products that are needed and to make them better," he said.

Companies' claims checked
The rise of green marketing has raised concerns about greenwashing -- companies exaggerating their products' eco-friendly attributes or making misleading claims about their environmental efforts.

"There are more and more pressures for companies to start appearing green," said Michelle Chan, Friends of the Earth's program manager for green investments. "Therefore, there are more and more promises."

But with technology, businesses could find it harder to get away with greenwashing than in the past. The Internet makes it easy for dishonest ad campaigns to quickly gain notoriety. And dozens of watchdog groups have sprung up to help consumers discern who's telling the truth. These efforts could ensure that green marketing doesn't lose its effectiveness and become a fad.
"If anything, it's overwhelming, this wave of awareness," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace. "Hopefully, this sticks around and is not just a phase."