Sustainability thrives as green marketing dies off
Sixteen years ago this month, the Green Party scored its first significant electoral victory in Ireland when it managed to get six TDs elected to the Dail, bagging 4pc of the national vote in the process.
Like the Progressive Democrats did when they arrived on the political stage in 1985, the Green Party promised to break the old political mould and lead us down a new path of heightened social and environmental consciousness.
Almost overnight, the big debates about climate change, sustainability and peak-oil fed into the national debate, TV programmes about environmental issues popped up on our screens and green issues provided the eco-friendly fuel for many newspaper columns and, somewhat ironically, enough books to fell an entire Amazonian rainforest.
Even though the Celtic Tiger was purring away happily the background, we were intrigued about the possibility of leading better and more environmentally-friendly lifestyles. We embraced our new brown wheelie-bins with gusto and felt proud of our weekly trips to the bottle-bank to recycle our empty bottles of merlot. But with the instant gratification provided by an abundance of cheap credit combined with our obsession with property-ownership and other worldly goods, it was always going to be a hard-sell for the Green Party. We knew we were getting carried away with ourselves but we chose to ignore it. As Al Gore might say, it was an inconvenient truth.
Ireland, however, had arrived late to the green party. Green concerns in the 1980s were largely triggered by a string of man-made and natural disasters ranging from floods in Bangladesh, famine in places like Eritrea to earthquakes in Armenia. While the 1980s were bleak, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the UK Green Party's unprecedented electoral victory in the European elections - when it achieved 15pc of the vote - heralded in a new era of hope. By the time Earth Day came around in 1990, many believed society had reached a tipping point. The UK think tank, the Henley Centre even proclaimed that the 1990s would be a "caring and sharing" decade.
Tapping into the prevailing zeitgeist at the time, many within the marketing community fell over themselves in an attempt to jump on the green bandwagon, keen to show off their new-found eco credentials. Worthy brands that were once found on the bottom shelves of health-food stores entered the mainstream while bigger brands, like the Body Shop and Ecover, were toasted as good examples of green businesses. But given that marketing has always been about trying to get people to consume more while green values are all about getting us to consume less, they were always going to make for uncomfortable bedfellows.
The reality is that most green branding efforts over the last 20 years have failed, not because there is a lack of consumer demand but because the branding has been superficial, the products have often been too expensive and, most importantly, they haven't been rooted in a genuine corporate belief that the product can help contribute, in whatever tiny way, to better and more sustainable environmental outcomes.
On top of this, the vast majority of consumers are not stupid and can see through a brand's flimsy attempt at green-washing for its own commercial gain.
While many manufacturers have long since given up on developing green, the one thing that has endured in all of this, however, is sustainability. While nothing in marketing is easy these days, sustainable business practices that embrace everything from product sourcing, sustainable inputs, the treatment of suppliers, carbon emissions, packaging and water and waste management are now proving to be a success for companies that have sustainability baked into their core business strategies. While consumers may have given up buying green products, the message of sustainability has resonated with them.
Take Unilever, the largest FMCG manufacturer in the world, as an example. Two weeks ago the company announced that its global Sustainable Living Plan, which was launched in 2010, was now delivering solid commercial benefits. The company said that 26 of its sustainable living brands grew 46pc faster than the rest of the business in 2017 and they also delivered 70pc of its overall growth in sales.
These brands include the likes of Dove, Hellmann's, Knorr, Lipton and PG Tips and they have outperformed the average rate of growth at Unilever over the past four years.
The company also revealed that it is on track to meet around 80pc its commitments around sustainability, including improving health and well-being for one billion people, reducing environmental impact by half and enhancing livelihoods for its employees and suppliers.
So, 16 years on, the message of sustainability appears to have finally sunk in, not just with brands but with consumers too. And even though the Green Party might be a shadow of its former self, perhaps it can pat itself on the back for its contribution to the sustainability debate.
Sunday Indo Business