How green is moving from the fringes to the boardroom?
February 25, 2014 — Have you read this little sign on the hand dryer in the bathroom (seen below)? After you read it, you probably felt pretty good about yourself, right? That little tinge of happiness you felt was due to green marketing. Since the 70's, issues of sustainability, pollution and waste control have been coming to the forefront. Like most major issues, it's a complex one. More than that, it’s an issue that seems to get more complex the more you learn about it.
Take the sign on the dryer for instance; does using an electric dryer really help the environment in the long run? Although using a hand dryer may save on paper products, which may save a tree from being cut, you might actually have kept one from being planted. Most of our paper comes from tree farms, so if demand decreases they just plant fewer trees to compensate. Confused yet? Now consider the electricity used the run the dryer - where did it come from? How was it produced? What about the metal and other materials and the processes to produce and distribute hand dryers all around the world? What effect would it have if the paper towels were made of recycled paper and/or are recycled after use? What's more, even if we find all of these answers, it doesn't prove that using either the dryer or paper towels is the best option in terms of sustainability. Maybe it would be best if we all carried our own drying towel with us.
Trying to weigh all the factors would take an expert tons of data and time. This isn't exactly something the everyday person is thinking about and even the experts seem confused.
Movement or Moment
Now-a-days everywhere you turn something is green, usually literally, and claiming to benefit the world in some way. With all the "Green-washing", mixed messaging, over-saturation, and confusion, a lot of consumers are tuning out. So what do we do about it? There is a crowd of people calling for the Death of Green! When I began research for this article, I was one of them. To be clear - this isn't a call to end all sustainability efforts. I simply felt the message had become too confusing to be utilized effectively. Thousands of companies claiming that if you buy their product you’re helping to save the world is neither true nor effective. Also, I felt marketers focused on making unconventional designs to draw attention rather than making smartly designed products that are just better in certain aspects.
After looking into it more, the push to end green marketing may not be the best option. In fact, the green movement may be so strong now that it’s unstoppable; it’s certainly proved that it’s more than just a trend. Popular brands with an eye on sustainability like Method, LUSH, and Tesla have gained appeal and market share. Wal-Mart, GE, P&G and other established brands have joined in or even helped lead the cause. Almost every major company has a sustainability report on their website. The fact that some major brands were seemingly "forced" to join in speaks to the power of the customer base. I think the Green Movement is on the brink of something, and it may not be as dreary as some are anticipating. What the Green Movement needs isn't a coffin, it’s just a little clarity.
What is Green
One of the problems that occur when a term catches on is that it starts to lose its meaning. What makes something Green? Does it have to be Organic? Electric? Recyclable? We've already covered some of the confusion, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many debates about organic cotton, recycling, and electric vehicles. I've found that while people immediately recognize the term Green, they don't really have a clear understanding of what it is. Marketers need to show consumers that Green is for everyone, not just vegans and mountain climbers. They also need to show the results of responsible consumption in a way that people understand and relate to. This is an important point because until the movement is headed in a clear direction, it will be almost impossible to see who is following along or track your progress.
Doing Good Feels Good - The Green Diet
I think shopping sustainably is like eating right and exercising; everyone knows they should do it, but it’s pretty easy to think of excuses not to do it. The problem is it often requires instant actions for delayed and sometimes invisible results. Running around the block and/or swearing off cheesecake may have prevented a heart attack, but I didn't see it. All I know is that I’m tired and hungry. So you have to present it in a new way - don't eat a salad because it will make you skinny, eat it because it’s delicious. Don't exercise - pick up a sport or maybe start dancing. The same goes for shopping Green. Electric cars are cool; solar panels pay for themselves eventually; organic food tastes better, etc. Most people don't want to cut down the rainforest or dump oil and plastic into the ocean. Letting people see the results of their actions is one step in the right direction. Another is giving them better options.
This all comes down to understanding how people make decisions and the factors that they weigh when doing so. Three main factors go into this; cost, convenience, and quality. We know now that sustainability is something millions of people value. I would say it falls under the quality category. The trick is understanding how much weight it holds for each product and each person. Most people didn't use the hand dryer to save paper, they did it because it was the best (or only) option for them at the time. People may value sustainability as increased quality, but if it's too expensive or inconvenient they won’t purchase it. It’s up to designers, engineers, and business people to help strike that balance. This brings us to the next point.
Sustainability Drives Innovation
Sustainability has not only become integral in the customer’s purchasing decision, but also in the design and manufacturing process. I think of it like the chicken and the egg - you may not know which came first, but either way the end result is delicious appreciable. Regardless of whether the dryer was designed to be a better way to dry hands or to keep people from wasting paper, the result is the same.
The current age of digital content is inherently green. Some concepts are central to limiting waste and you wouldn't even know it because it’s not marketed as a "Green" product. Instead of buying physical books, magazine, movies, CD's, games, etc; we can just download or stream them. There's no waste, no excavating materials, and products don't sit on a shelf or in a box for years. It has even increased and optimized the sharing process. I know people think this generation doesn't know how to share or communicate, but I don't think my parents or grandparents ever shared music or cat videos with millions of other people, and for free no less. Innovative companies like Zipcar and Redbox have us sharing more than ever. Furthermore, hipsters and eclectics have made it cool to wear old clothes (thanks Macklemore), or make an old door into a coffee table. The main difference between Plato's Closet and The Salvation Army stores is marketing. As Green continues to develop, it won’t just capitalize on great marketing and product innovation, it will drive them. Companies are beginning to understand that this opens up new markets and increases their bottom lines.
In looking for evidence that Green was dying, I instead found that it had grown up and put a suit on. Growing out of the stage where it’s fighting for attention, Green is showing how it can have a major effect on companies’ market share and the world. It’s clear that the development isn't complete yet - the Green movement is still figuring itself out along the way, but isn't that something we can all relate to?
Jaryn Miller is a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design. He works primarily in the Rapid Prototype department in a design fabrication role, engaging in design thinking through modeling. His work has been featured online by Fast Company and Wired. Initially Miller was attracted to ROBRADY design by the Vectrix Electric Superbike: “The Vectrix Superbike was actually one of the first concept vehicles I had ever seen and helped to lead me to the field of industrial design. So, it’s kind of ironic that the first step of my career is working with the company that helped spark my passion for design.”