Monday's New York Times article on the me-too rush to claim eco-cred at retail brings up some important questions: when does a product earn the green badge -- and who decides?
The highly entertaining piece details the silliness in some of the 60,000 products bidding for the Home Depot's new "Eco Options" program: plastic-handled paint brushes hawked as eco-friendly because the weren't made from trees; wood-handled painted brushes shilled because they weren't made of plastic.
Is it possible that green is in the eye of the beholder? Or is it just that sometimes green is gray?
The best brand managers and advertisers know that any brand experience they create must come from a truth in a company's practices and people. If a company can reasonably show its commitment to environmentally forward practices in the way it makes, packages or distributes its products or services, can't it claim green cred, even if those practices are eco-imperfect?
Take Toyota, for instance, maker of the eco-darling Prius. As the largest car manufacturer in the world, they help pump far more more CO2 into the atmosphere than its Prius can claim to withold. Should we be cynical about the Prius? Or should we praise it as a good start for a very complex problem? Can GE's ecomagination make up for all its environmental sins of the past? Or does it merit a closer look by virtue of its leadership from the top of the Fortune 500?
The answer isn't "yes and no." The answer is to quit expecting a silver bullets. To the extent companies and products (not to mention you and me) make incrementally smaller impacts on the environment in the course of doing business, that's a good thing. And that's something marketers can and should take to market. The trick is to back up claims with reasonable, credible evidence.
Of the 60,000 proudcts they revied, for instance, the leaders of Home Depot's Eco Options program only accepted 2,500.
What worries me is less that green can be gray and more that green could be the new Atkins. As a rule, me-too marketing is shackled by the law of diminishing returns. And when the returns start to tank, the prentenders have a way of taking others down with them.