The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Putting on the Green

Putting on the Green

In the News

March 30, 2008

Putting on the Green

Frank DiPasquale
Senior Vice President, 
N.G.A. and Executive Director,

N.G.A. is pleased to provide you timely and relevant information from Food, Nutrition & Science – and at no cost as a NGA member! More and more consumers are educating themselves as to the nutritional and health value of the products they purchase, and this newsletter should assist you in keeping abreast of the rapid developments in the nutritional aspects of the food you provide to your customers. We sincerely hope you find this newsletter an important part of your education as you continue to improve the value proposition for your customers.

The line between dressing up sustainability to appeal to consumers and ‘greenwashing’ is a narrow one. How can you sell the benefits?

The President said to Congress, “To waste, to destroy, our natural resources... will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”

Not that President.

No, this was Teddy Roosevelt, who exactly 100 years and two months ago was warning of the impending threat to our future prosperity wrought by failure to keep a check on our appetites. In his day, the term in vogue was “Conservation,” but Roosevelt, who faced down his own crop of green washers in those he labeled “Nature Fakers,” would likely have found a philosophical home in the great-grandchild of his conservationism — today’s drive to “sustainability.”

You know it when you see it. Uh, what is it again? One of the issues still confounding widespread adoption of sustainable retailing is that it tends to be one of those concepts that you can’t describe, but you know it when you see it. And contrary to what you may have heard, the definition isn’t even settled in the agricultural and scientific circles where the term originated. Here’s one of the more widely circulated ones, from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of further generations to meet their own needs.”

If the devil’s in the details, there’s room for a lot of mischief in nearly every word of that concise definition. Retailers faced with implementing — let alone profitably implementing — such a wiggly definition are opening the doors to confusion. And that doesn’t take into account the downright glowing promises like those of one prominent green author claiming companies can bulk up profits by at least 38 percent and as high as two-thirds over five years just by greening. That strange déjà vu some of you may be feeling you’ll recognize as the gut reaction you had a decade and a half ago when Six Sigma and Total Quality Management dictates from the boardroom were going to recapture all our lost efficiencies and waste-cut our way to riches.

Practically speaking. Today’s sustainability faces the same risk of ignorability as that magic wand quality management, as long as the connect between abstract and concrete, between public good and private good, isn’t immediate and obvious. However, if retailer’s can embrace the need for sustainability without losing sight of sustainability’s real inconvenient truth — that there are no simple answers — they may find toeholds to work incrementally toward that grand design. One of the better working definitions of sustainability, for instance, is a system that looks for and then reduces “externalities.” That is to say, it tries to shift costs back onto the system that generated them, rather than hiding them in somebody else’s system. Examples include farming practices that hide true production costs in government subsidies, or sourcing practices that don’t pay a wage that permits workers to sustain their standard of living. Examining your own system for outdated cooling technology, water reclamation opportunities, prodigal packaging disposal, obvious pollution(real or imagined)— even though they may not satisfy the Grand Designers — certainly can offer a manageable starting point for grocers looking to become sustainable on the pay-as-you-go plan.

A movement in search of a market. Either because of — or in spite of — the fact that there’s a lot of people simply talking a good game about sustainability, the potential customers you eventually must rely upon to fund sustainability remain for the most part oblivious. Even the giddily optimistic Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson, authors of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World, estimate only about 17 percent of Americans are green-motivated enough to buy regularly. Market research firm The Hartman Group notes only 5 percent of consumers can tell you which companies practice sustainability, only about 12 percent know where to shop sustainably, and nearly every second consumer as absolutely no familiarity with the term.

Hartman, which surveyed 1,600 representative consumers in January 2007, as well as conducted extensive qualitative research and interviewing, believes the present sustainability market breaks along three lines:

 ·         A core group, which believes they can affect social change through their purchase decisions, and therefore researches where products come from, how they’re produced, and what impact they make on workers, local economies, the environment and animals. Like Ray and Anderson, Hartman tallies them at only about 18 percent of consumers.

·         The outliers, at 17 percent, who refuse to shop sustainably unless the health or welfare benefit is obvious to them or it’s mandated by regulation or economic realities.

 ·         A soft middle, at about two-thirds of the market, which has a vague notion that sustainable products must somehow be better for their health and that traditional production practices may somehow be putting them at risk.

It’s obvious for now, according to Kate Peringer, the Hartman Group’s marketing communications manager, that sustainability buys retailers only limited traction as a marketing term.  Which is not to say there’s no opportunity. The most promising two categories in which early adapters may drag mainstreamers along into sustainability: Food and packaging.

Talk the talk and...well, you know the rest. So although he’s characteristically dismissive of the market’s ability to affect public good, smug counterculturalist turned trend watcher Gerald Celente is right for the wrong reasons when he accuses sustainability of being “a trend driven more by economic survival—to make ends meet, to boost profits, and to assuage guilt—than by intellectual pursuit.”

Hartman Group’s Peringer would agree. Short of widespread regulation demanding sustainable practices or economic meltdown that intensifies the pain beyond toleration, consumers won’t rush to adopt sustainability. Yet, the group has identified six marketable values that fall under the umbrella of sustainability, values that retailers can find opportunity to sell into:

• Health

• Local

• Simplicity

• Control over their surroundings

• Social responsibility

• Environmental responsibility.

Though U.S. consumers typically show little patience for paying for social experiments as purchase options on their consumable goods — despite what they say to market researchers — Peringer believes nevertheless retailers who insert the language of those values into their marketing communications can begin to capitalize on the emotion of sustainability.

Bearing in mind, of course, that for now the going may be slow. The mass market may be making small changes in their own sustainability contribution, but they appear to be for the most part only changes that cost them little money, time or convenience — turning off the water while brushing their teeth is her example. Meanwhile, it’s prudent to remember that Europe, the bleeding edge in social design by American standards, currently supports a sustainable market share of only about 10 percent, only about 5 percent of Sweden’s farms — the globe’s pioneer — are organic, and if every square mile of land in the continental United States were one giant farm, the organic field would take up an area roughly equal to half of Rhode Island.

The logical view of sustainability from the grocery marketer’s view is the same way Peringer’s boss, Harvey Hartman, views the organic foods movement. Hartman, who has pronounced “natural” officially dead as a marketing term because it’s been so universalized as to be meaningless, says at the heart of all — sustainable, natural, organic or local — lies a search for “authenticity.”

Such authenticity, that is, eating “real” food from “real” places with “real” stories, is an attempt by culturally adrift consumers to rediscover social networks sharing the same values. That explains, he says, community supported agriculture, for instance. In that way, although organic consumption begins as an attempt (for the most part, an unsupported one) to “eat healthier,” it ultimately turns into a way to appease the separation anxiety created when farmers moved away from consumers and vice-versa.

It’s part of a wider search for authenticity that has spawned innovative marketing campaigns like Unilever’s Dove brand’s “Real Beauty” campaign, an effort that nothing short of brilliantly has cemented together around Dove a community of every woman who ever felt resentment toward the professional beauty machine. By treating consumers as people again, worthy of more involvement than just selling soap or cereal or beef to, authenticity deepens the meaning of a brand, says Harvard Business School professor John Deighton, who just commented on the phenomenon in the Journal of Interactive Marketing. For tomorrow’s marketers, Deighton argues, the old exaggeration must bow to authenticity.

As green baker Ron Shaich observed of the meteoric growth of his Panera Bread, now the 17th largest U.S. food-service company, selling $1.9 billion worth of sustainable artisenal bread per year: “...Customers weren’t looking for commodity food. They wanted to feel special in a world in which they were not.” How you accomplish that remains the difficult part, but what better definition of the essence of sustainability could you ask for than that?