Overcoming the Sustainability Marketing Conundrum

According to Organic Monitor, one of the most difficult decisions a company can make is how to market its products on sustainable values. Overemphasis on ethical and ecological credentials can lead to detailed corporate scrutiny and accusations of greenwashing. At the same time, not responding to consumer demand for sustainable products can lead to product withdrawal and business failure. Where should companies draw the line between legitimate marketing and greenwashing? 

Darrin C. Duber-Smith, green marketing guru, believes companies need to take a holistic approach to sustainability. He believes the days of choosing options from a "green buffet" are over as consumers becoming increasingly knowledgeable about social and ecological issues. Furthermore, growing pressure from supply chain partners and competitors as well as legislative changes have raised the sustainability bar. Transparency and clear communications hold they key for a successful green marketing strategy, according to Duber-Smith. Being honest and diligent not only fosters customer loyalty, these qualities also breed a "feel good" culture within organizations.

The subject of sustainability marketing is highly pertinent in the North American natural beauty industry. Accusations of misleading product labeling and false marketing have resulted in a number of high-profile law suites involving the USDA, certification agencies, consumer groups and brand owners. Research by Organic Monitor finds a major reason is the low adoption rate of private standards for natural and organic personal care products. Less than 5% of these products in North America are certified, compared to two-thirds in Europe. In countries such as France, more than 75% of natural and organic personal care products are certified.

Duber-Smith states natural personal care companies should be more forthcoming with information on their product labels. By specifying the precise organic ingredients and percentage of total ingredients on product packaging, consumer trust can be strengthened. Apart from greater transparency, sustainability audits are encouraged, and a sustainability audit should look at aspects such as energy and water usage, waste disposal, biodiversity impact, social partnerships and distribution—in addition to ingredients. Setting targets and continuous improvements are believed to be the way forward.

Duber-Smith will present Green Marketing Challenges at Organic Monitor's Sustainable Cosmetics Summit (March 24–26, 2010, in New York) in which he will examine the major challenges companies face when marketing sustainability products. He will guide companies through the pitfalls of green marketing and give future prognostications. Case studies will be given of companies that are successfully meeting the ecological and social challenges.

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