THE BLOG
09/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pitching Climate Protection to Consumers

Recently I wrote about the rise of "conflicted consumers" who want greener options but don't want to go too far out of their way to get it. Is this fairly passive commitment to greener buying going to drive enough change to tackle problems as large as climate change? Some organizations seem to think not.

A few months ago Al Gore launched a $300 million ad campaign called "we can solve it." (Gore just proposed a goal for the country of moving to 100% non-fossil fuel energy in 10 years. Discussing that aggressive target is for another time.) The campaign features unexpected pairings of spokespeople - Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi, and so on - who have apparently put their differences aside to push for more action on climate. The goal of the campaign is to "educate people that the climate crisis is both urgent and solvable." But the true aim is to get people moving - both politically and as consumers.

Gore's campaign is not alone. The "Together" initiative - with partners as diverse as TimeWarner, Dell, Target, and the city of Seattle - has similar goals but, more, it wants to provide consumers with actual products and services to reduce their climate footprint. Member companies can discuss their sustainability commitment in ads and on products as long as the NGO in charge (The Climate Group ) has vetted the claims. As the website explains, "we ensure that every product or service they offer through the campaign makes it easier or cheaper for you to do your bit and help tackle climate change." So the initiative is about purchasing your way to green. In that way, "Together" is very much like the Bono-led RED campaign for AIDS relief that Gap and others have pumped money into over the last year.

Why all this activity? Besides the obvious marketing benefit to companies, my guess is that many businesses have realized they need consumers to shift their thinking. The big trio of societal forces - government, business, and consumers - all need to change to tackle something as large and thorny as climate change. No segment can do it alone.

These campaigns, however, are fighting a historically tough battle. The environmental community has been waiting for 38 years (since the first Earth Day) to see a values shift in the U.S. They're still waiting. Sure, people buy more organic food, and they are flocking toward smaller cars to avoid energy costs, but the "conflicted consumer" is just that - conflicted. They aren't seeking out the green offering exclusively (which is why I advise companies to pitch their products on multiple attributes, not just green).

But all that said, all this marketing activity might work this time. The stars are aligned in a different way now than 38 years ago. Resource constraints are not theoretical anymore and market price signals couldn't be clearer. Greener offerings are also so much better than they used to be (yes, we can say it...many green products launched years ago, frankly, sucked).

So businesses should get ready to deal with more engaged, educated consumers who are tying their everyday decisions to global scale issues. Companies will need to change both products and marketing messages substantially.

Green marketing expert Jacquie Ottman recently gave an eye-opening talk about green marketing today (at Sustainable Brands '08). Of course she stressed the need tie green pitches to core product attributes, as I do. But she also went further and suggested that companies could start encouraging sustainable consumption. Perhaps, she said, companies could pitch buying less of something - imagine marketing execs bringing that campaign to their management! It only works of course, if companies make things that have lasting value or serve a need for longer than competitive products. Will Sarni, CEO of Domani Consulting (full disclosure: I have a business partnership with Domani), said this about Jacquie's talk: "She spoke the unspeakable." Yes, she did, and business should listen.

The big ad campaigns, combined with real world environmental pressures, will prompt many consumers to ask for something very different from the companies they buy from. Innovative companies will answer the call and happily and eat their competitors' lunch.

This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.

Andrew Winston helps companies use environmental thinking to grow and prosper. He is co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold, writes a monthly e-letter Eco-Advantage Strategies, and regularly blogs on green business.