Can large corporations ever be really green?
OgilvyEarth, the new green shop in the giant Madison Avenue agency founded by iconic ad man David Ogilvy, says yes. They’ve put out an earnest guide to green marketing, From Greenwash to Great, with case studies from famous brands to inspire corporate marketers to go green.
The guide gives good, noble advice that’s also smart marketing: Make Honesty a Priority; Find Strength in Humility; Commit for the Long Term. OgilvyEarth gets the big bucks for a good reason, and if they can help big brands create a bigger market for free-range eggs or corn-based plastic, then good on ’em.
Of course, big brands have big power. We need to recognize that if we want to live in today’s industrial economy, rather than in some fantasy economy of handicraft artisans weaving straw or pounding metal in thatched roof worskhops. If Gillette came out with a natural deodorant stick, it would have a much bigger impact than when Tom’s of Maine did.
But no amount of soft-focus TV ads a brand runs about giving its employees time off to pick up trash by the local streambed or its commitment to sourcing organic cotton handpicked by quaintly dressed campesinos should distract us from seeing the full impact of a global brand on the environment.
By definition, in a globalized economy, companies like Walmart, Nike, and Coke do many things that will never be green in any sense:
- They’ve offshored their manufacturing to Third-World countries with lax environmental rules and enforcement. This leads to fouler air and nastier water over there that will impact us over here in myriad ways sooner than we think. It also means companies have to ship goods to markets thousands of miles burning up bunker oil, diesel fuel, and even jet fuel while pumping out greenhouse gases.
- Big brands package their products in generous amounts of plastic, cardboard, and paper that winds up in landfills and incinerators. And they retail their products in increasingly monster shopping malls with monster parking that’s paved over valuable farmland and requires consumers to drive personal cars to get there, wasting gas and causing pollution.
- Worst of all — many products are just not needed. They’re not healthy, they’re not useful, and they’re not beautiful. But big brands successfully “create demand” with Super Bowl ads, texting teenagers, and Twitter marketing that gets us to buy stuff we don’t need or want. That uses up natural resources and creates waste, when these products reach the trash heap, as most soon do.
Wasting resources and creating pollution in these ways will never be green.
But you can hardly blame the Ad Men from trying to help their clients cash in on green marketing. After all, more people do care about the state of the Earth today, as they should. And those people are a big market of consumers in an attractive, high-income demographic.
Yet, given the enormity of global warming, peak oil, and the numerous shortages of water, fish, minerals, and other resources, can any amount of green marketing by multinational brands be more than deckchairs on the Titanic?
Is OgilyEarth part of the solution, or part of the problem? Really green or just a lighter shade of greenwashing?
True green is not making organic cotton t-shirts in China.
It would be really green to make t-shirts and almost everything else Americans buy in the USA, for starters. That would also create jobs for American workers and put green in American families’ pockets too.