To understand the complex relationship between consumer interest in the environment and corporate behavior, it's useful to turn to a few examples of the difficulties companies have in trying to do right, or at least better, by the environment. Consider an apparel company involved in growing cotton, among the most difficult and polluting crops to grow due to its high susceptibility to pests. In the U.S., a fourth of all pesticides are applied to cotton, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project. It takes roughly a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow enough fiber to produce just one T- shirt. Some of these chemicals end up downstream of cotton fields, in the air breathed by farm workers and their families, and in the edible crops grown nearby.
A small but growing number of cotton growers have switched to farming methods that eliminate or drastically reduce the use of chemical-based pesticides and fertilizers. Some farmers are able to have their crops certified as organic, meaning they meet strict requirements on how their crops are grown, harvested, and processed.
So, back to the name-brand apparel maker, whose commitment to environmental and social responsibility led it to voluntarily source organic cotton, which it blended with conventional cotton to make its products. Its commitment, though only 1 percent or 2 percent of its annual cotton purchases, represented a huge percentage of the available organic cotton supply. The company believed its purchases could play a major role in providing sustainable markets for organic cotton farmers, and their continued demand could spur other farmers to switch to less-harmful methods.
A bold environmental initiative worth crowing about, yes?
Perhaps. But the company in question not only didn't mention on its product labels or marketing materials that its products contained organic cotton, it would not even talk to inquiring journalists about its efforts. The reason? By calling attention to organic cotton, the company risked raising public concerns about the environmental impacts of conventional cotton. Suddenly, what was once a positive corporate effort risked creating a backlash: 98 percent of the cotton the company was buying might be viewed by consumers as being harmful to the planet -- hardly "the fabric of our lives"! The company concluded it was better to just not talk about it.
Such thinking, while understandable from a corporate-risk perspective, represents a loss to consumers and the environment. The apparel company, among the world's most recognizable brands, could have educated the public on a key environmental issue and possibly boosted demand for organic cotton as well. The same internal conflicts affect promotion of organic foods, unbleached paper and textiles, less-toxic paints and cleaners, and countless other consumer goods.
A similar dilemma faces any company whose products are less than green. How can such companies be rewarded by consumers for being proactive? It can be done, but it isn't easy, and it certainly doesn't always work. Part of the problem is that the buying public has such a complex view of the environment, and translating environmental concern into consumer action isn't straightforward.
Next Section: Green Consumption