NEW YORK, N.Y (11/4/09)—Retailers, foodservice chains and consumer product manufacturers should think long and hard before attempting to cast their brand as “green,” according to Joseph Bona, president of the retail design division of New York-based strategic branding agency CBX.
“The bottom line is simple enough. If you aim to make green a fundamental part of your brand messaging, do not do so until sustainability truly is written into the company’s very DNA, from senior management on down,” the veteran store designer wrote in a column titled “Winning over today’s greenwash-weary consumers,” which appeared in the October issue of retail design publication DDI. “If your efforts are more modest, make sure your marketing is just as low key. And no matter how green your company might be, communicate those efforts with an honest and straightforward transparency. Doing so can deflect criticism and win respect from today’s increasingly eco-savvy shoppers.”
In the column, Bona pointed to the different approaches of three companies—Patagonia, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts—in communicating their green virtues to consumers.
At Patagonia, visitors to the company’s website can click on the image of any of the outdoor apparel manufacturer’s garments and find information boxes describing the product’s ecological upside. “No surprises there,” Bona wrote. “After all, Patagonia would be crazy not to tout its sustainability efforts, given the green bent of its consumers. But here is where it gets interesting. Under the heading ‘The Bad,’ the info box then proceeds to describe exactly what is not green about the garment.”
Bona praised the company’s transparency in admitting that certain chemicals in its garments are “bad” for the environment. “By being so forthright—and by pledging to further green its products and operations as its ability to do so improves—Patagonia is building immense brand credibility. This preemptive strike can stop any would-be watchdogs from hurling ‘greenwashing’ charges,” he commented.
At Starbucks, the SharedPlanet Web site provides a wealth of information about the company’s numerous sustainability initiatives, including the plans to pursue LEED certification in all of the chain’s new stores. “Take a tour through the green blogosphere, however, and you’ll find no shortage of scathing criticism for the company,” Bona wrote in the DDI column. “On one hand, there is little Starbucks can do to mollify a certain stratum of extreme critics. If it touts its efforts to buy Fair Trade coffee, for example, these eco-warriors will nonetheless say Starbucks doesn’t buy enough Fair Trade, or will assail it for using too much water or too many paper cups. On the other hand, you can’t help but wonder whether the volume and tone of that criticism would change if Starbucks took an utterly transparent, Patagonia-like approach and said, ‘Here’s the good and the bad of what we’re doing.'”
Meanwhile, Dunkin’ Donuts’ “very low-key” approach to promoting its participation in the Fair Trade coffee movement “befits its regular-guy image,” Bona observed. “Rather than running green-themed ads rife with imagery of smiling indigenous farmers carefully tending coffee trees on Guatemalan hillsides, the chain was careful not to overreach. It worked a simple Fair Trade logo into some marketing materials, which was just enough to prompt a nod of approval from those who care about such things—and not enough to arouse suspicions of greenwashing.”
He went on to advise that when communicating their efforts to go green, “brands must be clear-eyed about their own complex relationships with consumers. Starbucks’ commitment to Fair Trade actually is a big deal, considering the enormous scale of this multinational corporation. Unfortunately for Starbucks, its size and corporate aura make it an easy target for eco-warriors. It has a much harder sell than, say, Ben & Jerry’s, which all of us would immediately assume is green to the hilt, or, for that matter, blue-collar Dunkin’ Donuts, which nobody expects to be on the cutting edge of the environmental movement.”
To read the full article, go to the digital edition of the October issue of DDI: