The coming backlash over green marketing

Micah points us to this campaign from Tumi Luggage. Buy some nylon luggage, they’ll plant some trees (one tree? A bush? It’s not clear how many trees per suitcase). It’s entirely possible that Tumi’s campaign is nothing short of generous, but as a consumer, it’s awfully difficult to tell.

The easiest marketing promise to make is to say you’ll do something green if people consume what you sell. That you’ll support one green cause or another. No one is in charge of checking out your story, and my guess is that 90% of the time, it leads to a net negative–more landfill, more carbon, more waste.

I can still remember a car commercial that ran when I was a teenager… during the first big energy crisis. It touted that a certain brand of car was the one to buy, not because it got better mileage, but because it had a bigger tank! "Range," the announcer intoned, "is what you need in a car."

Consumers aren’t stupid (we’re dumb sometimes, but not stupid.) So, when the backlash hits, when every single brand has used up some green angle, then what?

Here’s what’s missing: a number. When you buy a fridge, there’s a big yellow sticker with a number about relative energy consumption. Now, we could argue all day long about how to figure out the right number (should the number on the fridge include data about the amount of energy needed to make the fridge in the first place?) but an imperfect number sure seems better than no number at all.

Drive to Philadelphia: 150.
Take Amtrak: 22.

Stick with the lightbulbs you have throughout your whole house until they burn out: 175.
Replace them all now with something better: 142.

Organic strawberries from California: 88
Frozen strawberries from California: 80
Apple from Dutchess County: 4

The power of a number is the effect we saw when they put a number on restaurants (Zagats) and wines (Parker) and gas mileage (the EPA). People notice a number, and they work to improve it. If every car sold in our country had a real-time gas consumption meter on the dashboard and the rear window, things would change very fast. The only change from the status quo would be the story (communicating impact) but marketing the story is our biggest challenge right now. Once we communicate the most efficient path, I think we’ll be delighted at how many people take it. Right now, marketers are doing a lousy job of that, devolving into short-term, often selfish come-ons. That’s not going to last and it’s not going to scale.

Marketers who truly care about the green thing should be scrambling right now to find a number or an organization that can defend the green brand. If not, it’s going to be worthless and a great opportunity for improvement is going to be lost.