Sustainability Holism Vs. Green Tokenism

06/16/2010 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While speaking at the Sustainable Brands 2010 conference last week in Monterey, CA, I had one simple question for the VPs of sustainability who were in attendance: "Over the long run, can 'green' brands and 'non-green' (we'll call them 'brown') brands coexist in the same product portfolio?"

The question is important because most established companies were founded before sustainability was on anyone's commercial radar. The upshot is that most global brands have no green heritage. The typical answer I received was: "I'll let you know."

Elsewhere, I have argued that over the long run, green and brown brands will not be able to coexist. Call it the Sustainability Holism Hypothesis coming straight out of eco-thinking. One of the key tenets of sustainability is that "everything connects to everything else." Usually we are referring to the interconnectedness of ecosystems, but increasingly the phenomenon extends to entire businesses and their product lines. It manifests like this: When confronted by the launch of a new green brand activist, employees and customers inevitably say, "Great, but what about the rest of the stuff you're selling?"

Sometimes the holistic interconnections are unavoidable. The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf, for example, is the final chapter in BP's green rebranding debacle. In the early 2000s, BP spent $650 million branding itself "Beyond Petroleum," complete with a sunflower logo and solar panels on its gas stations. But no matter how authentic leadership's greening intentions are, the reality is 90-plus percent of BP's revenues come from oil. The company even built a token green business -- BP Alternative Energy -- but hasn't made a go of it. That's because it is interconnected to the oil and gas business and ultimately loses out in terms of investment and executive attention to big-money petroleum.

In other companies, the holistic connections are less obvious until someone points them out. Take Unilever's 2004 "Real Beauty Campaign," launched by the Dove soap brand to counteract the beauty industry's messaging that only emaciated, photoshopped models were beautiful. The campaign's "Onslaught" video, with more than half a million YouTube views, showed a young impressionable girl bombarded by actual advertising images and came with the advice, "talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."

Dove and Unilever initially received commendations for the efforts to build the self-esteem of women. That changed, however, when advertiser Rye Clifton posted his own YouTube version of the Dove spot. This time he clipped the sexist images directly from Unilver's Axe brand male body spray commercials in which bikini-clad women lust in Pavlovian fashion after men sporting the Axe scent. When confronted by the hypocrisy, Unilever claimed each brand was merely speaking in "relevant" ways to its demographic. Spokespeople even said that the Axe commercials were just a "spoof."

Now Unilever has approximately 400 different brands, each targeted to a different market, so how much coherence can you expect? But Unilever is working to build an overall image as a responsible corporation and exercises central control over the individual brands. Thus the executive question: How much sustainability dissonance can the portfolio sustain before it blows apart? Right now it looks like a lot. Toyota can sell both the Prius and the Tundra. Clorox has Burt's Bees and chlorine bleach. Pepsi sells Sun Chips and 7-Up. Seagram's peddles scotch and orange juice. Will consumers care about these differences? Probably not, unless someone points them out in a compelling way. And, of course, the internet makes this increasingly easy.

If the Sustainability Holism Hypothesis holds true in the long run, what can we expect? The example of cigarette giant Philip Morris provides one possibility. Upon acquiring Kraft Foods in 2003, Philip Morris rebranded as Altria to signal they were about more than tobacco. The effort was undone, however, in 2007 when both Kraft and Philip Morris were spun off. Apparently virtue and vice didn't play well together.

And BP's example makes a pretty good argument for keeping green and brown brands separate. Instead of wasting $650 million on green branding, BP should have recognized its responsibility lies in making what it does -- exploring and developing oil and gas reserves -- as safe and environmentally responsible as possible. Invest in blowout preventer technology, not solar panels.

So the underlying question persists. Can green and brown brands co-exist in the same portfolio? The answer for now is the same one I received from the VPs: "I'll let you know."

Cross-posted from Forbes