Free ‘green bag’! (with bonus plastic wrapping)

What do you get when you buy two packs of detergent? No less than a free cloth ‘green bag’ (the brand’s term, not mine).  Such was the deal on offer at a Sanur supermarket today, strategically placed next to the cash register for those impulsive last second purchases.

Two things struck me.

First, you have to appreciate the irony of getting a free ‘green bag’ which—get this— is wrapped in its own plastic bag, and then bundled again in more transparent plastic wrapping for the 2 packs of detergent. Whereas the original reason for the so called ‘green bags’ was to reduce disposable plastic bags, this detergent promotion essentially tramples over the whole idea and hands you a cloth bag with green motifs (of course emblazoned with the brand name) while still using adding plastic to the waste stream.

Second, the ‘green bag’ label has officially lost its true significance. It now essentially boils down to this: design a bag from any non-plastic material (or even polypropylene (yes, its plastic)), slap on it some green leafy motifs, mix in a slogan with the words green or eco, brand it, and hey presto—green bag! Will your customers use it? Probably. Will they reduce their use of plastic bags because of it? Probably not.

And here is the problem. A ‘green bag’ is never really a green bag unless its owner turns it into one. And that doesn’t require magic—only bringing it along for a shopping trip on a recurrent basis. Until this happens, businesses are stalling on their sustainability work.

In 2010, so-called ‘green bags’ are no longer a market differentiator to burnish a company’s sustainability credentials. Its time to move on. To stand out from the competition and implement a business sustainability policy that catalyzes a demonstrable positive change, don’t just give your customers a free cloth bag. Show them how to use it in a green way, and then reward them for it. Freebies. Discounts. Anything that reinforces the behaviour and loyalty to your brand.

And perhaps a good start would be to give away the detergent IN the green bag, rather than packaged in plastic.


The next conservation battleground: cities

Consider this.

  • 2009: first time in history when one in two humans lived in urban areas.
  • 2010: A study from the Earth Institute tells us that the highest forest losses are correlated with 2 factors: urban growth within countries; and, mainly in Asia, growth of agricultural exports to other countries (for dramatic illustrations of these trends, look no further than the slums clogging cities such as Jakarta, Beijing or Bangkok.)

For those of us engaged in stopping deforestation, these two facts point to cities as the arena where the next conservation battles must be fought. As urban centres swell with an influx of people from the countryside and total purchasing power grows, demands on commodities such as palm oil, soy, sugar and cotton follow accordingly. Hundreds miles away, this demand is met by ever faster encroachment into the remaining patches of forest, flattened in favour of plantations.

Influencing consumer behaviour in the largest cities–say with more than 5 million residents–through localized, sophisticated, campaigns that provide the public with attractive alternatives to products that have contributed to deforestation may prove more effective than spatial plans, protected areas, law enforcement patrols and the like.

At the end of the day, consumers run the show. When a product’s sales drop–hopefully because a campaign has effectively convinced consumers of the brand’s unsavoury environmental and social practices–then you can be sure that the executives will start paying attention, and clean up their act–pronto.

Because of their size, density, and combined environmental impact beyond the limits of the urban area, cities are the best place where we have a fighting chance to keep forests standing. But to do this, we must win the hearts of tens of millions of people who through their daily acts are unconsciously undoing the natural world, one purchase at a time.

This is the time; the public is attentive to ‘green’. Can we be smart enough to capitalize on this interest to make them make more responsible purchasing choices?

Some companies greener than you think? Yes says the New Scientist

In an interesting twist on the global movement towards higher corporate environmental responsibility, research by the New Scientist and research firms Earthsense and Trucost reveals that some companies are much greener than consumers perceive them to be. A deliberate move from some firms to do good without too much public scrutiny, or a major marketing failure?

Gap between firms’ reputations and performance

ENDS Europe Daily, 18 February 2010 – Some companies are much greener than consumers think, according to an analysis of 115 major corporations and US consumers’ perceptions of them by magazine New Scientist and research firms Earthsense and Trucost.

The analysis, published on Wednesday, shows Coca-Cola is getting little credit for “fairly impressive” efforts to protect the environment. It has the second lowest impact of all the food and drink producers surveyed, but consumers do not recognise this.

The environmental impact of the entire food and drink sector is hugely underestimated, the analysis reveals. Consumers do not rate it as more damaging than other sectors, despite the very high environmental costs of agriculture and food processing.

Conversely some firms have a much better reputation than they deserve, according to the analysis. Fresh Del Monte Produce is seen as very green but has the largest impact ratio of all companies analysed. Another example is Discovery Communications.

GE is reaping the benefits from marketing its Ecomagination campaign , the authors say. Others such as Whole Foods Market portray themselves as green companies, but it is hard to prove because they do not disclose all their environmental data.

Disclosing more information on their impacts would help reduce the number of “dramatic mismatches” highlighted in the analysis, say the authors. Investors are demanding more corporate environmental data but consumer information is lagging behind.

Hypermart Indonesia gets social marketing–when will others?

It was looking like another depressing ‘green’ re-run in the retail world. Supermarket chain jumps on the green bandwagon by selling so-called tote bags at the check-out counters, with the same old ‘green’ slogans (when will marketing get the fact that people are not necessarily out to save the world?). So when a smiling clerk came up to me with a free drink as we were frantically piling the shopping in our reusable bag at Hypermart Galeria in Bali, I stalled. Finally. Customers who refuse plastic bags having their action validated with a freebie. Social marketing 101!

The mainstream and unspoken consensus in the retailer world in Indonesia seems to be: “Yo, let’s start selling green bags and tap into that ‘green’ trend thing.” For some supermarket chains, such as Carrefour, this has been nothing short of a phenomenal marketing bonanza it seems. The ubiquitous Carrefour green bag is now seen at railway stations (filled with family clothes), at the park (with junior’s change of clothes) and at airports. Where it’s been noticeably absent is at Carrefour’s check-out counters, where customers should in theory bring them to avoid using plastic bags.

Hypermart handing out a cool drink to customers who bring their own shopping bag (whether it’s plastic or cloth, who cares?) brings them one step ahead of the pack. Here is a basic demonstration of what we should be seeing wherever there are efforts to change people’s behaviour: clear benefits for them. Will a free drink be enough of an incentive for customers to bring their bag again next time they go shopping? This is where it will pay off to do a bit more customer research…


Green marketing at Jakarta airport’s Terminal 3

Eco Terminal?Last week I dragged my bleary-eyed self  out of an Air Asia plane in Jakarta at a ghastly hour of the morning, almost missing out on one of the latest additions to Indonesia’s list of green-coated products. As it turns out, the terminal I was in was not just any terminal, but an eco-terminal.

By many yardsticks, the newly opened Terminal 3 is a marked improvement over its predecessors at Soekarno-Hatta airport, with clear and informative signage, plenty of open space, and−get this−free water! Even the passenger drop-off area seems to be free of hassling by taxi drivers.

Curious to find out about the features which warranted the eco part of the terminal’s name, I ventured to the information desk to quiz the staff. His first explanation? The trees planted around the terminal’s parking area, reflecting a widespread perception that planting trees is the way towards environmental salvation. Tree planting is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to be seen doing the right thing for the environment−but it is debatable if it is the most effective (the subject of another post).

The staff went on to mention the waste bins with separate containers for paper and organic waste, an admirable addition to the terminal assuming that the waste IS actually sorted and recycled/composted. It was only later when I googled terminal+3+jakarta that I read about the terminal’s design, which favours passive lighting to reduce the use of lamps (and hence coal-produced electricity). And indeed, the building’s high ceiling allows sunlight to flood the gate and baggage claim areas, a welcome addition to lighten up the cold, modern design that characterizes the terminal. Awesome.

As it turns out, I found out more about the building’s green features by doing my own research rather than asking from a representative of the terminal.

Poor training? Capacity issues? Whatever the reason, here lies a lesson: if you are going to pitch a product as green (whether a terminal or a detergent), you need to be able to back up these claims with hard, verifiable data. The fact that the airport management decided to pitch Terminal 3 as green is tremendously encouraging−it means they consider this feature to be a selling point for their market. But then comes the hard part, where the proverbial tyre hits the road−communicating to staff and customers why this is a green terminal, and why this is the way to go.

Until then, the jury is out on whether this terminal is truly eco or not…

Why a crackdown on greenwashing is good news for businesses

Green paint by jennifer l.If you can sell toll roads and disposable food boxes as green, there is no telling which product will get the same green treatment next. I’m thinking hamsters fed on organic food pellets.

This could  get dangerous.

It only takes a few alert consumers with a bent for mayhem to create a public relations disaster, with the marketing unit scrambling to figure out retrospectively what it was about the product that warranted environment-friendly messaging in the first place (picture this with the soundtrack of office phones ringing off their hooks as journalists try to get the scoop).

Now, the US Federal Trade Commission is tightening the screw as  it updates its environmental marketing guidelines for the first time since 1998. The agency’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, or Green Guides, define terms such as “recyclable” and “biodegradable” and explain how businesses should back up environmental assertions.

Now this is why this should come as good news to businesses. Part of the difficulty in promoting green products is the lack of standards, definitions and reference points. Under some definitions, some argue that any product with some organic ingredient qualifies as green. With the FTC’s souped up, 2010’d Guide, businesses can evaluate their products (do they qualify as recyclable? do we have enough data to demonstrate biodegradability?) and raise the bar.

The FTC’s revamped Green Guides are not a stick. They pave the way for all of us to start speaking the same language when we start defining green products.

A lesson in simplicity (and a few thoughts on online fundraising)

Somebody tagged me on this movie via Facebook a few days ago−a deceptively short  film about the strained relationship between an elderly Greek man and his son. Here, in 3 minutes of film, the director has managed to pack more emotional intensity than in most feature films I have gorged myself over the last year.  Watch (and weep).

So what’s the connection with online marketing? This may be one of the best demonstrations of online campaigning that was not designed to be online campaigning. Here is a movie that was shot on a shoestring budget, which made its fame on Youtube, and which has catalyzed a strong emotional reaction from its audience (it reduced to tears pretty much everyone I know who has watched it, including myself)−for some, the Holy Grail of successful online engagement.

Now what if, instead of credits, the final frames faded to black and gave way to 1 or 2 sentences urging viewers to be better sons? Or to make a donation to a charity helping elderly people?

I suspect that even individuals who are not sensitive to such causes would be tempted to reach for their credit cards. As the movie has close to 2 million views, imagine the ROI. Reducing such a beautiful movie to financial terms seems harsh, but there are powerful lessons here for us trying to engage people to rally to causes:

  • Keep it short: People don’t have time to spare.
  • Keep it simple: For the same reason as above, don’t engage consumers with a complicated premise if you only have a few minutes (or even less) of their time.
  • Don’t dramatize the issue: Let the issue reveal itself and stick to the facts. One of things that makes the movie so powerful is that it is completely believable.