By Paula Oliveira – Associate Director, Interbrand London
It is debatable among environmental specialists if the responsibility to act on climate change belongs to governments, general public, NGOs, or companies, but the fact is that more and more corporations have been taking responsibility into their own hands by optimizing their operations and supply chains, investing in more sustainable products and services, openly expressing their commitment and long-term targets, and smartly engaging their stakeholders in the debate.
This is very different from the green movement of the 1960s, when companies promoted their green credentials but didn’t really understand or do enough to fundamentally change their business and limit their negative influence in the environment. According to CorpWatch, a not-for-profit organization that promotes companies’ accountability and transparency in various issues, in 1969 alone, public utilities spent more than US $300 million on advertising, which was more than eight times their investment in anti-pollution research.
This first wave of “corporate green” peaked in late 1980s. At that time, people became more aware of menaces to the environment due to the increasing number of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and famine. Suddenly, green products were cool; so were mitigation actions such as recycling. Companies saw the opportunity to engage with consumers and increasingly promoted their brands’ green credentials. But as John Grant states in his 2007 book, The Green Marketing Manifesto, the substance was lacking: for consumers, the movement was just a “brandwagon” they didn’t want to miss, but they were not ready to change behavior. Consumers were unsure if environmental catastrophic predictions were realistic, so their interest in the “green trend” faded quickly; as for companies, they failed to produce green products with true environmental
benefits, high quality standards, and affordable prices. Examples include green cleaning products that didn’t clean, and recycled papers with poor resistance. All this made companies wary of communicating green credentials even when they were true, so they could avoid the risk of being accused of greenwashing, a popular term to nominate companies that speak loud about green credentials but don’t do enough.
But there were some good side effects of this first wave. New green charities were founded and existing ones such as Greenpeace and WWF became more renowned worldwide. Governments increased legislation regarding waste and gas emissions. Pollution was reaching unbearable levels in major cities and manufacturing businesses and car fleets were targeted as partially responsible. As a result, companies improved their operations in order to improve efficiency, generate less by-products and cleaner waste, reducing air and water pollution.
Nowadays, we don’t know if the weather is getting warmer or colder, we just know it’s changing. It is hard to know which animal species are more severely under threat – we just know many are. We don’t like to see rubbish thrown on the streets, we don’t like to see rivers or beaches dirty or polluted and we recycle our rubbish and we expect business and brands to do their part as well. This is not because legislation obliges us to follow rules, but because it is simply the right thing to do for our planet.