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Beyond "Green"

Despite an apparent disconnect between consumers' environmental concern and their willingness to buy environmentally preferable products and services, companies continue to offer a steady stream of new products bearing environmental claims. Data compiled for "The Green Business Letter" by Marketing Intelligence Service (MIS) offers some insight. MIS's Productscan database tracks new consumer products making some kind of green claim. New products are noted when their labels include such terms as "biodegradable," "environmentally friendly," "no animal testing," "no pesticides," "organic," "ozone friendly," and "recyclable," among other claims. Productscan does not verify the accuracy of the claims.

Since 1990, the percentage of all new products introduced has ranged from 8.7 percent to 13 percent. The high occurred in 1993, the low in 1998. By the end of the decade, the percentage (11.3) was roughly what it was at the beginning (10.1).

But these numbers don't tell the whole story about how far companies have come over the past ten years. Their specific labels notwithstanding, the goods being purchased today are a lot "greener" than they were a decade ago. In many cases, these environmentally improved products make no green marketing claims at all.

The reason: Over the past decade, companies in nearly every sector have significantly improved their efficiency. Many companies have eliminated nearly every ounce of waste from their manufacturing processes. Others have learned how to deliver products and services using significantly fewer resources. A few random examples:

  • Anheuser-Busch developed an aluminum can that is 33 percent lighter. This reduced use of aluminum combined with an overall recycling plan saves the company $200 million a year.

  • Ford Motor Company used more than 60 million two-liter plastic soda bottles in the manufacturing of grille reinforcements, window frames, engine covers, and trunk carpets. In 1999, this effort accounted for 7.5 million pounds of plastic.

  • McDonald's saved 3,200 tons of paper and cardboard in 1999 by eliminating sandwich containers and replacing them with single-layer flexible sandwich wraps. By switching to lighter drink cups, the company eliminated 1,100 tons of cardboard materials that would have been used for shipping. McDonald's also spent more than $355 million on recycled-content products in a single year.

  • Kellogg's plant in Bremen, Germany, employs a wastewater recycling operation that reduces water consumption and wastewater effluent. In India, a Kellogg vapor-absorption system is used to provide plant air conditioning, eliminating the use of ozone-depleting substances. Fluorescent bulbs at the Kellogg plant in New Jersey are sent for recycling, removing potentially hazardous materials from landfills.

What's spurring all these greening efforts? The motivations invariably include cost savings, reduced liabilities, improved community relations, and enhanced corporate image. Yet none of these efforts can be found on a product label, brochure, hang-tag, or advertisement. Should Anheuser-Busch's profitable aluminum-saving effort result in an eco-label on cans of Busch and Bud? Does Ford's use of recycled plastic yield a "green" Taurus? Should Kellogg's Corn Flakes be included on a list of environmentally preferable products?

Probably not. Yet these efforts arguably yield more environmental benefits than the "green" trash bags, cleaners, and paper products hyped as better for the planet.

All of which makes the green consumer conundrum even more complex: Should environmentally conscious consumers consider only individual products, or could they leverage their shopping dollars by patronizing companies with exemplary environmental records, even though these companies' individual products might not be widely viewed as "green"? Is there even any way to determine the greenest companies? Who should decide, and on what criteria?

Companies aren't waiting for consumers or activists to figure this out. Bolstered by the business value that can be derived from reducing waste and maximizing resource efficiency, thousands of companies around the world are making dramatic improvements in their operations. In some cases, they have set their goals on nothing less than creating zero waste -- operating factories in which every bit of unused material is eliminated, reused, or recycled.

Companies aren't the only ones being proactive in the marketplace. Consumers continue to express their concern about the nature of the goods and services they buy, though their specific concerns and interests have become increasingly more subtle and complex. For many consumers, simple labels like "recycled" or "safer for the environment" no longer offer sufficient information on which to determine "good" products. And there are other societal forces helping to sway consumer opinion about how -- and in some cases whether -- they spend their dollars.

Clearly, consumer power is continuing to evolve, and the changes afoot affect both companies and shoppers. What emerging trends will most shape consumers' ability to help the environment?


Next section: Three Marketplace Trends

Sections
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Sections
Consumer Power: Front Page
Introduction
Saving Face
Green Consumption
Beyond Green
Three Marketplace Trends
The Future of Consumer Power
Audio
Voices
Voices
Hear what Americans randomly interviewed on the street think about our environmental future
Video  56k  T1
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Audio
Betsy Taylor
Betsy Taylor
Executive Director, Center for a New American Dream, discusses consumption and choice.
Audio: Consumption
Audio: Choice
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Kevin Coyle
Kevin Coyle
President of the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, discusses environmental literacy in America.
Audio
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Jeff Hollender
Jeff Hollender
President and CEO, Seventh Generation talks about environmentally friendly products.
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External Links
GreenBiz.com
Sustainable Cotton Project
Organic Trade Association
The Center for a New American Dream
The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation
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