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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : March/April 2004 : Innovation

INNOVATION

Time to Talk Products
Eco-innovative products spark customers' enthusiasm and commitment.

By Jacquelyn A. Ottman


In the early 1990s, McDonald’s 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, McDonald’s rallied behind a highly conspicuous product (and to underscore credibility, allied with a highly credible environmental group—but that’s another story.) The effort helped to catapult the fast food giant’s 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 stakeholders.

And it’s not undeserved, either. Product design is a critical determinant of a corporation’s 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 products—and 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-cotting”—skewing purchasing of ordinary grocery products toward companies perceived as having good environmental track records.

Suggesting future potentials, 50 percent of Americans say they would do more for the environment, but don’t 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 administration’s 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 company’s 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 Exxon’s 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, specifically:

* Make the commitment to develop eco-innovative products. Strive for— and communicate—an ideal goal of “zero”: zero waste, zero energy, zero environmental impact.

* 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 Toyota’s 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 your product.

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 marketing.com.


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