Sus­tain­abil­ity thrives as green mar­ket­ing dies off

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

SIX­TEEN years ago this month, the Green Party scored its first sig­nif­i­cant elec­toral vic­tory in Ireland when it man­aged to get six TDS elected to the Dail, bag­ging 4pc of the na­tional vote in the process. Like the Pro­gres­sive Democrats did when they ar­rived on the po­lit­i­cal stage in 1985, the Green Party promised to break the old po­lit­i­cal mould and lead us down a new path of height­ened so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness.

Al­most overnight, the big de­bates about cli­mate change, sus­tain­abil­ity and peak-oil fed into the na­tional de­bate, TV pro­grammes about en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues popped up on our screens and green is­sues pro­vided the eco-friendly fuel for many news­pa­per columns and, some­what iron­i­cally, enough books to fell an en­tire Ama­zo­nian rain­for­est.

Even though the Celtic Tiger was purring away hap­pily the back­ground, we were in­trigued about the pos­si­bil­ity of lead­ing bet­ter and more en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly life­styles. We em­braced our new brown wheelie-bins with gusto and felt proud of our weekly trips to the bot­tle-bank to re­cy­cle our empty bot­tles of mer­lot. But with the in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion pro­vided by an abun­dance of cheap credit com­bined with our ob­ses­sion with prop­erty-own­er­ship and other worldly goods, it was al­ways go­ing to be a hard-sell for the Green Party. We knew we were get­ting car­ried away with our­selves but we chose to ig­nore it. As Al Gore might say, it was an in­con­ve­nient truth.

Ireland, how­ever, had ar­rived late to the green party. Green con­cerns in the 1980s were largely trig­gered by a string of man-made and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters rang­ing from floods in Bangladesh, famine in places like Eritrea to earthquakes in Ar­me­nia. While the 1980s were bleak, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the UK Green Party’s un­prece­dented elec­toral vic­tory in the Euro­pean elec­tions — when it achieved 15pc of the vote — her­alded in a new era of hope. By the time Earth Day came around in 1990, many be­lieved so­ci­ety had reached a tip­ping point. The UK think tank, the Hen­ley Cen­tre even pro­claimed that the 1990s would be a “car­ing and shar­ing” decade.

Tap­ping into the pre­vail­ing zeit­geist at the time, many within the mar­ket­ing com­mu­nity fell over them­selves in an at­tempt to jump on the green band­wagon, keen to show off their new-found eco cre­den­tials. Wor­thy brands that were once found on the bot­tom shelves of health-food stores en­tered the main­stream while big­ger brands, like the Body Shop and Ecover, were toasted as good ex­am­ples of green busi­nesses. But given that mar­ket­ing has al­ways been about try­ing to get peo­ple to con­sume more while green val­ues are all about get­ting us to con­sume less, they were al­ways go­ing to make for un­com­fort­able bed­fel­lows.

The re­al­ity is that most green brand­ing ef­forts over the last 20 years have failed, not be­cause there is a lack of con­sumer de­mand but be­cause the brand­ing has been su­per­fi­cial, the prod­ucts have of­ten been too ex­pen­sive and, most im­por­tantly, they haven’t been rooted in a gen­uine cor­po­rate be­lief that the prod­uct can help con­trib­ute, in what­ever tiny way, to bet­ter and more sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­men­tal out­comes.

On top of this, the vast ma­jor­ity of con­sumers are not stupid and can see through a brand’s flimsy at­tempt at green-wash­ing for its own com­mer­cial gain.

While many man­u­fac­tur­ers have long since given up on de­vel­op­ing green, the one thing that has en­dured in all of this, how­ever, is sus­tain­abil­ity. While nothing in mar­ket­ing is easy th­ese days, sus­tain­able busi­ness prac­tices that em­brace ev­ery­thing from prod­uct sourc­ing, sus­tain­able in­puts, the treat­ment of sup­pli­ers, car­bon emis­sions, pack­ag­ing and wa­ter and waste man­age­ment are now prov­ing to be a suc­cess for com­pa­nies that have sus­tain­abil­ity baked into their core busi­ness strate­gies. While con­sumers may have given up buy­ing green prod­ucts, the mes­sage of sus­tain­abil­ity has res­onated with them.

Take Unilever, the largest FMCG man­u­fac­turer in the world, as an ex­am­ple. Two weeks ago the com­pany an­nounced that its global Sus­tain­able Liv­ing Plan, which was launched in 2010, was now de­liv­er­ing solid com­mer­cial ben­e­fits. The com­pany said that 26 of its sus­tain­able liv­ing brands grew 46pc faster than the rest of the busi­ness in 2017 and they also de­liv­ered 70pc of its over­all growth in sales.

Th­ese brands in­clude the likes of Dove, Hell­mann’s, Knorr, Lip­ton and PG Tips and they have out­per­formed the av­er­age rate of growth at Unilever over the past four years.

The com­pany also re­vealed that it is on track to meet around 80pc its com­mit­ments around sus­tain­abil­ity, in­clud­ing im­prov­ing health and well-be­ing for one bil­lion peo­ple, re­duc­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact by half and en­hanc­ing liveli­hoods for its em­ploy­ees and sup­pli­ers.

So, 16 years on, the mes­sage of sus­tain­abil­ity ap­pears to have fi­nally sunk in, not just with brands but with con­sumers too. And even though the Green Party might be a shadow of its for­mer self, per­haps it can pat it­self on the back for its con­tri­bu­tion to the sus­tain­abil­ity de­bate. Con­tact John Mcgee at john@ad­world.ie

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