In the early
1990s, McDonalds broke new environmental ground when it unveiled
its quilt-wrap alternative to bulky styrofoam clamshells.
In so doing, it ushered in a new era of corporate environmental
management focused on products. Said another way, instead of merely
cleaning up its manufacturing processes to prove it was a conscientious
corporate citizen, McDonalds rallied behind a highly conspicuous
product (and to underscore credibility, allied with a highly credible
environmental groupbut thats another story.) The effort
helped to catapult the fast food giants image out of the dustbin
and onto the top of the corporate responsibility list.
My hypothesis: Focusing on eco-innovative products can
provide more leverage in corporate green communications efforts
than the traditional emphasis on filtering the smoke stacks or changing
out the office lights. Consider the evidence.
Products and their marketing are highly visible to the general public.
Eco-innovation signals corporate social responsibility, innovation
and competitiveness. These in turn can ignite the enthusiasm and
commitment of the public, the media, employees, investors and other
And its not undeserved, either. Product design is a critical
determinant of a corporations environmental impact. An estimated
60 to 80 percent of the total environmental impact of a product
throughout its entire lifetime is actually determined at the design
stage. It may take a few months or even a few years to develop a
new product, but its impact during and/or after use can span generations.
Polls show that Americans express their concern for the environment
primarily through their choice of productsand increasingly,
companies. More Americans look for eco-labels at the store, turn
off the lights when leaving a room, and write letters to Congress
or attend environmental events. Underscoring the potential impact
on corporate reputation, polls show a growing tendency toward consumer
pro-cottingskewing purchasing of ordinary grocery
products toward companies perceived as having good environmental
Suggesting future potentials, 50 percent of Americans say they would
do more for the environment, but dont know how. So a tremendous
opportunity exists for corporate communications efforts to use greener
products and their marketing messages to educate consumers and other
stakeholders, thus establishing themselves as environmental leaders
rather than defensive polluters.
With the Bush administrations lax approach on the environment,
planet-concerned citizens are taking the responsibility for clean-up
into their own hands. Their focus: products! For example, the SUV
is now under considerable fire from the likes of the Sierra Club,
the What Would Jesus Drive Coalition and other vocal
groups for dismal fuel efficiency scores.
Meanwhile, some leaders in the auto and oil industries are gathering
green kudos for taking serious steps toward eco-innovation. Led
by chairman Fujio Cho, Toyota is using its Prius, with its the hybrid
electric-gasoline engine sedan, to put them on the map as a credible,
pro-active company that is looking for solutions. The product itself
makes a splash for its innovative, quiet technology in addition
to being friendly to the planet. Corporate ads tout the Prius, in
addition to fuel cells and other innovations, as steps in the companys
process of creating environmentally advanced vehicles for the future.
In contrast, by pulling highly visible new green electric vehicles
from the market like the EV-1 and the Th!nk Mobility!, GM and Ford
ran the risk of losing ground on the environmentally conscious front
as well as tarnishing their image as innovators. Corporate environmental
marketing advertisements to date tout broad claims about driving
toward sustainability or making the world a better place,
without anything to back up them up product-wise.
In the energy industry, BP has a good product story to tell, with
solid evidence of its commitment to green energy in the form of
solar powered and natural gas technologies; chairman John Browne
visibly reinforces that commitment. Advertising focuses on finding
greener sources of energy and specifically talks about its product-related
progress. Compare that to Exxons corporate ads which talk
about finding more oil.
Learn from the lessons above. Project a positive image for your
corporation by talking about your product-oriented initiatives,
* Make the commitment to develop
eco-innovative products. Strive for and communicatean
ideal goal of zero: zero waste, zero energy, zero environmental
* Follow the footsteps of Fujio
Cho of Toyota and John Brown of BP and voice commitment from the
highest levels (CEO) of the company.
* Take Toyotas and BPs
efforts even further by educating consumers about what they can
do to let them know how your product can help them lead a more sustainable
lifestyle. Consider ways to show them how to responsibly consume
Jacquelyn A. Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.,
a New York City-based consulting firm that works with Fortune 500
companies, the U.S. EPA and other organizations on strategies for
green marketing and eco-innovation. Additional information can be
found at: www.green