Part I focused on my belief that we have arrived at the juncture where sustainability risks crossing over into the rarified world of “super words.” This scares me a bit, particularly given the very serious issues we face – from global warming and disappearing bees to over-fished oceans and drought-plagued cities. In the face of these very real problems, “sustainability” is now poised to become one of the top cross-industry marketing buzzwords of all time. Make no mistake, what we are seeing now is just the beginning. Other buzzwords come and go (“Dotcom”) or are industry specific (“Low-Carb”), but sustainability is different — it is bigger, stronger, faster, more flexible. It is the Six Million Dollar Man of marketing words, and Madison Avenue is doing what it does best right now and grabbing hold for the ride. This is the old scorpion and the frog scenario – it’s just in their nature. And that is hugely risky given the real issues at stake here will not, repeat NOT, be solved by selling more Frosted Flakes by highlighting that the corn comprising said Flakes was “Sustainably Harvested” because the farmers started sorting their recycling.
OK, that was a bit cynical I admit, so here is the good news: everyone wants to talk about sustainability and everybody wants to know what this new set of “principles” means for them, for their companies, their products, their careers, their futures, their children, etc. What more, people want to tie themselves, their companies and their products to this idea of sustainability. And this…well this is all fantastic, right? Yes, yes it is. It is great to see that we are finally realizing the seriousness of the challenges we face, and the need to act rather than observe. But my point is that HOW we are reacting, and how business leaders in particular are reacting, it is also very risky. All I am saying is that we need to be careful here…that this sustainability “craze” is only as good as the progress it leads to on reversing the disturbing trends we’re witnessing (or even the deceleration of those trends). Otherwise the use of the word “sustainability” in marketing and PR is nothing but fluff and will actually have a negative impact.
Now don’t get me wrong. Raising awareness and simply getting corporate America into the “big top” is a huge part of this journey of reversal/improvement we have hopefully embarked upon. So in no way am I expressing displeasure or frustration with the green marketing boom or the sustainability craze. In fact when I was working in the world of cause-related marketing way back in the early 1990s we would have thought we died and gone to heaven if we had woken up one morning in “2007 America” with CEOs and network anchors and Madison Ave marketers all preaching the green gospel with a zeal once matched only by so-called “tree huggers” (e.g. this author circa 1990). My point to my fellow business leaders is simply this: acknowledge that we face real problems, and therefore must use the word sustainability in our marketing very responsibly lest we become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We have the power to determine whether sustainability winds up on the heap of spent marketing buzzwords a la dot com and low carb. And because this is Save the World, Marvel comics, James Bond, clock-is-ticking stuff we’re dealing with, and because we are collectively our own Lex Luthor, we owe it to ourselves to stand up and empower the word sustainability via our own actions and commitments rather than dilute it with our greed and opportunism.
A final real-world example to tie this all together. GM’s got some extremely nice logos for their Chevy “eco-green-hybrid program” – there are like five of them which seem constantly streamed to my CNN.com homepage.
Similarly Ford has a beautiful new green factory “green factory” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4843708/ with a grass roof and super-efficient windows. These are great steps and credible representations of the commitment these large corporations have made to sustainability. But the real commitment, in this example, the one and only commitment that really matters, will come when the government and the auto manufacturers finally agree that only through raising fuel economy standards will we begin to make a dent in our national GHG emissions, which are the worst in the word by a long shot per capita. And while the logos and grass roofs are all fine and well, we would be better served to focus our attention on the fact that China has tougher fuel economy standards than we do in the USA, and that we can, should and must do better…now. That, rather than who has the better sustainability logo or the greener grass on the roof, is the real issue.