Green Business Trend: Giving Customers a Bigger Role

Customers are no longer just passive witnesses to businesses’ green efforts – They’re joining in.  Many companies are moving away from conventional cause marketing – just donating dollars to charity — and creating their own environmentally focused campaigns that encourage customers to be part of the solution. These initiatives can engender more goodwill from consumers because they’re offering a genuine avenue to make a difference.

eco grocery bags

Much of this change is being fueled by the growing influence of social media, which allows a company to make its green efforts more transparent and creates a two-way conversation. Telling people you’re environmentally friendly isn’t good enough anymore; you have to have to discuss it with them and engage.

Retailer Old Navy, for instance, collected used flip-flops this past spring in a partnership with Terracycle so they could be recycled into playground equipment donated to schools and community groups. Best Buy recently dropped its $10 electronics recycling fee, Reuters reports, to encourage customers to recycle more old computers and monitors through its stores.

For many small businesses, turning customers into participants may be as simple as asking them to schlep reusable shopping bags to the store or to sign up for electronic delivery of newsletters or billing statements. But the most effective campaigns often take it a step further and get a little more creative: They come up with a unique initiative that inspires customers to want to do more to help the planet and feel really good about it.

One particularly interesting campaign I found: Swing Salon, a New York City hair salon, donated customers’ hair clippings to Matter of Trust, a San Francisco nonprofit that used the hair scraps to create mats that soaked up oil from the Gulf oil spill in order to protect wildlife.

These kinds of initiatives — even if they require little or no extra effort on the customers’ part — can be particularly effective and create more loyal customers in an age when consumers are seeking more authenticity and socially responsible behavior from the businesses they patronize.

In his book We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, branding consultant Simon Mainwaring cites a 2009 Edelman survey finding that 83 percent of consumers would change their consumption habits if it could help make the world a better place to live – and 61 percent  have chosen to buy a brand that supports a good cause even if it wasn’t the cheapest one. Sixty-six percent of respondents believed corporations need to do more than give money to a good cause – they also need to incorporate causes into their business.

Mainwaring writes:

“Many consumers, especially those of the Millennial generation, are no longer willing to tolerate corporations and brands that neglect purpose or prevaricate about their efforts to be responsible citizens.”

Eco Grocery Bag Photo via 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.

3 Reactions
  1. Nice piece, Kelly, good examples and insights, thanks!

  2. E-Cycle Environmental agrees with this article. We support how the public is being held to a higher standard when it comes to implementing green practices into their daily lives. We hope that in 2012 more of the public recognizes how becoming more environmentally friendly can lead to a more sustainable and affordable way of living.