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Reuse? Reduce? Recycle? It depends…

Recycling logoReduce, reuse and recycle is the battle cry of environmentalists. Lately though, I’ve been wondering whether the slogan doesn’t need to be broken down and adapted to specific cases.

Now before I get accused of undermining the environmental movement and shooting on my own troops, let me say this: people respond to messages in different ways–and often not the way you would expect them to. Hence this blog entry.

Take Java, Indonesia for example, which is characterized (among other) by an increasingly urban population and an emerging middle class (60% of the island’s population in 2018 says UNESCAP). For these people, material goods are becoming more accessible and they can realistically aspire to a life with a car, air-con unit, a house, perhaps even a washing machine — these are items that provide them relative freedom and social standing.

These items also represent increased pressure on the national energy grid (hence more burning of coal), and also a vastly increased quantity of electronic and other waste down the road. Meanwhile, PLN is already struggling to keep up with electricity demand and city landfills are overflowing.

Now think of the word reduce—can we realistically expect to urge this consumer group NOT to purchase goods that they can suddenly afford? As environmentalists, denying the symbols of economic freedom to people who are joining the middle class is unlikely to be the best approach.

This doesn’t mean we should not encourage responsible consumption (“buy what you need, not what you want”)—but emphasizing consumer soberness will only succeed in casting environmentalists as boring doomsday prophets of the Dark Ages.

Recycle on the other hand can be the entry point (or message) to get this population class to begin thinking of impacts on the environment and our health. In this case, the appeal of recycling is that it doesn’t really limit buying behaviour (“Don’t buy stuff”), but it provides an opportunity for people ‘to do something about the environment’ while still fulfilling their collective consumptive urge.

So where is reduce (and reuse) likely to work better?

Poor segments of society are in the unfortunate situation where they have no choice but to make do with what they have, and reuse as much as possible.

However, for individuals who are comfortably established in the middle class, and who have presumably satisfied most of their material needs, then calls for reducing their consumption/environmental footprint would be more adequate (e.g. do you really need to drive that car for a purchase down the road? does the air-con unit have to be set at Arctic temperatures? is there really a need for a second cell-phone?).

Admittedly, recycling has a long way to go in Indonesia before it can make a dent in the growing quantity of waste in the country. But if we don’t take into consideration the particularities of different consumer groups, and adapt our green messaging accordingly, we will be missing out on opportunities to affect people’s behaviour where it is easiest to do so.

What opportunities for green marketing as retailers expand in Indonesia?

Carrefour logoThe Jakarta Post had this interesting tidbit of news a few days ago: “This year, minimarket chain Indomart is targeting to open 750 new outlets while its main competitor Alfamart plans to open 600 new outlets. ” This is happening while hypermarkets continue an aggressive expansion across the archipelago, with Carrefour Indonesia (40% market share in the hypermarket segment) planning to give the country 20 new outlets each year.

So if you’re working for an environmental NGO, why exactly is this worth stopping to think about?

Convenience shopping carries a rather mammoth footprint with it. Every additional retail outlet that opens represents new transport journeys for distributors, which creates additional traffic and polluting emissions. Add to this energy use to air-condition and light large spaces. Then you have the products themselves, packaged in styrofoam and other plastic material—and we all know where this packaging will end up (hint: not in a sanitary landfill).

If we look beyond the employment opportunities and added convenience that more retailers will offer to Indonesia, one thing is clear: unchecked and unmanaged, their impact will be felt in the air that we breathe and the water we use to wash ourselves.

And here is the opportunity for environmentalists and retailers: crafting alliances to collaborate on energy use optimization, waste reduction and consumer awareness. This will ensure that as we see more supermarkets around us, our living environment does not suffer from it.

For progressive companies, this means working with NGOs to source food products locally as much as possible, reduce superfluous and polluting packaging, and most essentially, educate customers through green marketing and work with them to reduce their environmental impact.

Because of their centralized structure, companies such as Carrefour and Hypermart lend themselves well to implementing environmental measures that will be replicated at a national scale. Some NGOs may balk at the prospect of working with big corporations—but it may offer the best chance of delivering large-scale actions that will limit the environmental impact of modern shopping.

Forget about saving Earth; will tree planting help your company’s image?

Picture this. A CEO with muddied boots kneels down and gently inserts a small green seedling into the ground. Photographers snap away, onlookers clap politely, and journalists start scribbling furiously a few ideas for a smart headline.

The corporate frenzy for tree planting (tanam pohon in Indonesia) is still in full swing, but the question is: how can this kind of activity really make a difference for the environment and for your company’s green image?

(I had promised to write about tree planting in a previous post, and with a recent heated discussion on the subject flaring on the green living mailing list I help co-moderate, and actress/celebrity/jack-of-all-trades Luna Maya now planting trees for a cigarette company, now seems  a good time to talk about this.)

On the surface, tree planting seems like the easiest fruit to pluck from the CSR tree. You can associate it with the issue of climate change, it’s a relatively cheap activity, it shows visible results (at least in the short term, and especially if planting happens in a bare area), and it allows VIPs to get their hands dirty and be pictured doing the right thing.

And as the Luna Maya story has illustrated in the past week, it can also generate considerable media coverage, strengthening your brand.

But as this blog keeps ranting on (and on) about, too many companies are not aware of the risks they face when sticking to safe, predictable and short-term environmental CSR activities that promote image over substance.

The truth is, many of these tree planting activities are one-off events, with seedlings promptly forgotten once the show is over.

According to a source, in West Java, an IDR 25 billion tree planting programme failed spectacularly, with only 10% of seedlings remaining one year later. Not the kind of news you want to see in the public media, especially when associated with your brand (by that time Luna Maya’s publicist won’t be returning your calls).

Now how about this?

  • Consider whether tree planting has anything to do with your business activities. I mean, if you’re selling stethoscopes, does it make any sense to sink part of your CSR or marketing budget into planting trees?
  • Now assuming you see a logical connection between your business and tree planting—let’s say you’re in the pulp and paper sector—what are you going to do to ensure that tree planting is actually delivering added value to the local ecosystem and to the people who live there? Think local income opportunities, educational benefits etc.
  • Collaborate with people who know about tree planting. Don’t buy the cheapest seedlings and plant them on the next available slope. Talk to specialists and partner with them. Engage with the local community and listen to their aspirations.
  • (“It sounds like a lot of work”. Yes, sustainability usually is, but you reap benefits further down the track. Honest.)

So let’s look at this again.

Your company has now developed a solid strategy for greening an area whose ecosystem will be greatly enhanced with new trees, and you have identified collaboration opportunities with local folks so that they can draw revenue from these trees.

Sounds like you’re good to go?

Not yet. If  you don’t have a budget set aside to regularly monitor and take care of the trees for the next few years, you’re just seeding failure, wasting resources and exposing yourself to some potentially nasty backlash once the seedlings wither and die, and people start taking notice. You may also hear the word greenwash. Hence the critical importance (notice the underlining?) of budgeting for this activity into the long-term.

Set? Now you can call Luna.

The essence of a successful environmental ad

Here is an imaginative ad from the folks at Greenpeace.

The layout allows the photo do most of the talking (we’re dumping way too much crap into the sea), a smart tagline reinforces the key message with an ironic  twist, and there’s a call to action for the reader to get involved (come on board the Greenpeace website).

Simple, memorable and effective.

The great green marketing add-on!

Flip flops by CinOk, so let’s talk about flip flops. With companies falling over each other in their efforts to position their products to consumers as green (any product it feels), it is worth considering exactly what kind of green marketing we can expect to hit the tube, billboards and magazines in the years ahead across Southeast Asia. Let me illustrate.

Say that you are Irfan Damial, head of Marketing at Crazy Shoes, and that your CEO asks you to pitch your latest flip-flops as eco-friendly (“Yo Irfan, slap some green on that will you? That colour just sells!”). Yes, the same flip-flops you have been churning out at a rate of 1,700 sets per day for the past 16 years.

Well, Irfan, you don’t have that many options–either you come up with ludicrous claims (rubber is a natural element, hence our shoes are environment-friendly!) or you suggest to your boss that Crazy Shoes invests in serious R&D to reduce raw material use, packaging etc. Neither is going to take you very far (although an illuminated CEO should give you a raise for suggesting the second one.)

(Incidentally, this story may be partly true. I recently saw a pair of $1.5 ‘ecological friendly footwear’  at Carrefour on Sunset Road in Bali. If that’s not a sign that green marketing is entering mainstream I don’t know what is.)

Stories like this are likely to become increasingly more frequent. A survey released earlier this year of more than 370 marketing and advertising executives provides evidence that green marketing is increasingly popular–82% of survey respondents said they planned to use more green messaging in their marketing.

The big question here is, of that 82% how many will resort to giving their products the ‘green marketing add-on’ treatment (sic the flip-flop anecdote)? According to Terrachoice, more than 90% of products with green claims are greenwashing in the U.S. market. In less developed markets, there are reasons to think that this may be worse.

But the simple fact here is that if you don’t get the product right—in the way that only a good quality product with a small environmental footprint can—then no amount of green marketing is going to make your product ‘eco’. As green marketing guru Jacquelyn Ottman says, green marketers must take an extra step of managing the product’s life cycle impacts.

If you thought that marketing was tough, then selling environment-friendly goods just made the game a whole lot more complicated—but definitely more worthwhile.

3 is a winner: Indonesian waste law, product responsibility & green marketing

Every day, with a ching and a smile, tens of thousands of laptops, light bulbs, juicers and electric fans change hands from retailers to consumers across Indonesia. Now fast forward to a few years later, when these electric appliances burn out, and end up decorating landfills, polluting rivers or torn apart by street kids to recycle components and sell them back. So if you’re the manufacturer, what do you do?

Option 1: You look the other way. I mean come on–things are hard enough trying to stay profitable in these tough times, making sure your products adhere to safety standards, and trying to reduce waste at your production site. How on earth are you going to keep track of your products after they have been sold and used? (That’s when you start grumbling about environmentalists and how they’re never satisfied with efforts made by businesses to reduce their environmental impact.)

Option 2: You come to terms with the fact that you have a liability on your hands. If you’re producing batteries, how badly do you want to see them scooped up by school kids during a clean up operation in a natural reserve (say Muara Angke in Jakarta for example)? Or photographed in the hands of a woman in rags trying to pry them open to salvage their components?

(If you are manufacturing and selling products in Indonesia, just consider the legal implications of having your products littering the country. Law 18/2008 on waste management could not be clearer; producers are required to manage their packaging and/or products that do not degrade naturally (source here). For those of you who like fancy terms, this is called Extended Producer Responsibility. According to The Economist, 31 of America’s 50 states have product-specific EPR laws. The European Union requires manufacturers to dispose of packaging, electronics and vehicles. Canada and Japan also have EPR laws.)

Option 2+: You do something about it. While some companies will squirm and stick to option 1, enlightened companies  will see here an opportunity to build customer loyalty. Look at US firm Staples for example, which sells office supplies–the company has rolled out a take-back programme for used items such as computer monitors, compact fluorescent light bulbs and batteries.

Is it a cost? You bet it is. But consider how Donny comes back to your store with a used item he wants recycled, and he gets to exchange it with one of your newer products at a discounted price. In one neat move, you have showed the world that you are taking responsibility for your products, you have offered your customer a service to rid him of a now useless device so that you can dispose of it safely, and now you have sold him a new one while making him feel good about it.

If none of this sounds convincing to you, consider this. In Java, the heart of Indonesia’s manufacturing sector, environmental capacity is already at critical level. That means the island cannot accommodate any more environmental abuse, whether pollution or infrastructure development (with more than 60 million people, this is hardly surprising).

Time to start thinking about how your business operation can avoid contributing to this disaster in the making.