Green is the New Black for Corporate America

Businesses are trying to remake their image to look more environmentally friendly. It's a transformation that began more than a decade ago. Don Carli, a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication, discusses the new corporate trend with Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For our Friday focus on your money, we're talking about new ways of appealing to you to make you spend your money. The byword from marketers these days is green. Al Gore, star of "An Inconvenient Truth," today will ask the advertising industry to help fight climate change. And he'll be doing that in a speech at the world's biggest advertising festival in Cannes, France.

The idea is that consumers will respond to advertisers. Joining us is Don Carli. He's a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication. Good morning.

Mr. DON CARLI (Research Fellow, Institute for Sustainable Communication): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, Al Gore is speaking at an advertising festival, which is basically a celebration of consumption. Does this signal the mainstreaming of the marketing of environmental causes?

Mr. CARLI: Well, it's certainly an important opening volley in that transition, from talking about issues that relate to the environment at the margins of marketing to really presenting environmental and sustainability issues in the central focus of marketing communications and advertising.

MONTAGNE: So the idea would be we might be seeing quite a bit more of this. And certainly some of the biggest corporations in the world have taken on very visible green strategies lately. An example would be GE's high-profile eco-imagination program, where it's actually promising to boost spending on cleaner technologies and slash greenhouse gas emissions. That has actually changed the product.

Is there a business case for this kind of campaign generally? GE's certainly doing well by it.

Mr. CARLI: In fact, consumers are just beginning to see the results of a transformation in business that's really begun over a decade ago. And companies like GE and Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart even, have really started to take this concept of sustainability into their core governance priorities.

GE, for example, says that there are really three things that govern what they do now. The first is make money. The second is do it ethically. And the third is make a difference. So brands are beginning to take the process of doing well by doing good into the core of how they make their decisions in making a product, in marketing or advertising a product, and bringing it to market, managing its entire life cycle. That's a radical shift, and it is one that is taking place now in the mainstream of business.

MONTAGNE: You just mentioned Wal-Mart. It also has a big environmental initiative aimed mostly at making its packaging and suppliers more green, more efficient, not overdoing packaging. But critics point out that Wal-Mart adopted these environmental practices when it was coming under fire for its labor policies. So with some companies, is green marketing what you might call self-serving, something akin to labeling a package of cookies with the words healthy choice?

Mr. CARLI: Yeah. In fact, there's a term for that. It's called greenwash. And certainly there are companies that attempt to put green paint on bad architecture. They don't necessarily have values that are aligned with these basic principles of sustainability that have to do with meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Those companies that are kind of rushing to green themselves up in a hurry really run into a number of potential perils and risks.

We live in a world that is, you know, one mouse click away from exposure of inconsistency or lack of integrity in the policies of a company being aligned with their practices. There is a rush to it. It's clearly been said that in some ways green is the new black. There are really fundamental changes.

MONTAGNE: Don Carli is a marketing research consultant. Thank you very much.

Mr. CARLI: Thank you, Renee.

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