Green Business Trend: Moving Beyond Green Marketing

Throughout December, I’ll be looking at green business trends that can help business owners lower their environmental footprint and engage their customers in their sustainability initiatives in the New Year.

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It used to be a business could stand out simply by being environmentally sustainable. But that’s changing: Now companies of all sorts and all sizes are playing up their efforts to save energy, reduce carbon dioxide, use more sustainable materials and streamline their packaging. Being green is not such a unique thing anymore.

Not that green marketing ever helped out that much anyway. Joel Makower, founder and editor of, said it well in a recent article:

“For more than 20 years, consumers haven’t been willing to vote with their dollars. The reasons are many and complex, but the result is clear cut: With the exception of some energy-saving devices, no green product has captured more than a tiny slice of the marketplace, at least in the U.S.”

If you look at environmentally friendly products that succeed, Makower says, it’s not because they’re eco-friendly.  Consumers choose them for more self-serving reasons. They buy organic foods for their health benefits, Toyota Priuses because they save gas dollars, and energy-saving products because they lower utility bills.

Green marketing on its own doesn’t drive sales. Makower adds:

“Too often, green marketers have attempted to prod consumers to act by relying on guilt or by encouraging people to ‘save the Earth,’ neither of which has turned out to be particularly aspirational or appealing.”

People are actually  less interested in buying environmentally friendly products in the aftermath of the Great Recession, according to a recent survey from Grail Research. The survey found the diehard “dark green” consumer segment grew slightly from 8 percent to 9 percent from 2009 to 2011, but the overall percent of consumers buying green products declined from 84 percent to 69 percent during that time. The report said:

“As opposed to previous years, growth will come from green products being comparable on value and having superior product performance.”

So, what can be gleaned from all this?

The ubiquity of green products and services is making it more challenging than ever for sustainable businesses to communicate their greenness with consumers in a way that actually produces sales. And it’s becoming far more difficult for consumers to wade through the choices. One walk down a food aisle turns up a crop of phrases like “all natural,” “sustainable” and “organic.” How do we decipher the legitimate from the greenwashing?

The answer may lie in supplying consumers with details – and authenticity. Companies can support their green claims by providing customers with more numbers and information about how they’ve lowered their environmental footprints. Many do so by writing sustainability plans and devoting sections of their websites to them. They show how much money they’re spending on sustainability – and how much money and natural resources they’re saving – by being more eco-friendly. And they can engage their customers by compelling them to get involved, whether by donating money to environmental campaigns or taking action.

It’s also important to realize that consumers won’t buy your products just because they’re green. They will buy them for other, less-idealistic reasons. So it’s essential to know what those reasons are and make that the central thrust of your marketing. Environmental good deeds are often just the icing on top.

Image from Arkady/Shutterstock


Kelly Spors Kelly Spors is a former small-business and entrepreneurship reporter and blogger for The Wall Street Journal who has also written for Yahoo!, Entrepreneur, NFIB's MyBusiness magazine and The New York Times. Kelly is now a freelance editor and writer based in Minneapolis and has previously managed communications for an environmental non-profit that helps businesses find ways to be greener.

4 Reactions
  1. Personally I think corporations have taken the “green movement” as something they can profit on, as always. It drives consumers to be “green” and yet they don’t even realize they are just participating in another marketing plan of large companies. Nothing wrong with it, I am just always surprised by consumer ignorance.

    • People are slow to change but I think that the the widespread use of the internet and independent news reporting has every bit as much to do with the increased awareness of the “general public” about environmental issues and corporate greed. I am always surprised by corporate greed.

  2. It is true that many businesses like to save money more than being green. Our company has some services that cost less than our competition because of our recycling practices. However, we have some services that recycle sensitive waste streams in a very ethical manner. Due to us taking the higher road (not exporting electronic waste) the cost to do business with us is more. Many businesses turn their cheek to this and will go with the lower cost service that is exporting to a third world country. This is not the case all the time, but it does happen a lot.

  3. Absolutely. When I speak and write on green marketing, I always talk about *combining* your prospect’s self-interest with planetary interest. That way, you can market effectively to both green and non-green markets.
    -Shel Horowitz, primary author, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet