A few months back, an interesting story caught my eye. It documented the green claims being made by Malt-O-Meal around their plastic bag packaging.
According to Malt-O-Meal, their bags created less environmental impact than the competition's boxes. They had, in fact, created a website titled 'Bag The Box' to tout these environmental claims.
From a strictly green perspective, this was a bit of a head scratcher: some of Malt-O-Meal's cereals do come in boxes; the bagged cereal bags are heavy plastic, with environmental baggage of their own; and the bags were introduced as cost-reduction measures years ago - it's not like Malt-O-Meal woke up one morning and decided to make the world a better place one bag at a time.
Digging deeper, I discovered Malt-O-Meal actually had a very credible green policy outside the bag. Their manufacturing plants have conservation programs, they're involved in the US EPA's SmartWay transport initiative, they purchase renewable energy, save water and waste, and use Energy Star equipment to cut down on power.
But it was the bag, and the potential greenwash that came with it, that made the news. So was it good news for the brand, or bad?
Imperfect Progress Is Still Progress
I met with Malt-O-Meal's consumer marketing manager Linda Fisher to dig into the potential hazards of their approach. Fisher was refreshingly candid and unapologetic.
'We're a small company - a David among Goliaths - and we introduced bags because they saved money and gave us a competitive edge' Fisher explained. 'Truth is, cost savings were a big driver behind all our initiatives, from energy conservation to waste reduction.'
It must be working. Over the last ten years, Malt-O-Meal doubled market share to ten percent. And the company is the only cereal manufacturer to build new plants to meet demand over the last decade.
But will the green bag controversy help or hinder Malt-O-Meal's growth? Or does it even matter?
I believe imperfect progress is still progress. While the bag is not a green solution, it beats the 'bag and box' favoured by other manufacturers hands down. In fact, it contains 75% less consumer packaging than a comparably sized box with an interior bag.
It also gains legitimacy, thanks to Malt-O-Meal's other green initiatives. Initiatives I would never have been aware of, were it not for the bag controversy.
Finally, the bag is a good innovation on other fronts. For example, it reduces costs - enabling Malt-O-Meal to compete effectively. And as Fisher says, those cost-savings are passed onto consumers, having saved US families over $1 billion since 2006
So it would seem that this measure, born of efficiency, has helped create a stronger green brand for Malt-O-Meal. Even if it is in a roundabout way.
My brand is green?
Speaking with Joel Makower of GreenBiz, I was reminded of another twist on the accidental green brand.
Church and Dwight, the 150 year old maker of Arm & Hammer baking soda, was dragged into the green revolution somewhat unwittingly.
In 1988, Bryan Tomlinson, then Church and Dwight's Canadian marketing director, was called by an environmental leader and admonished. The environmentalist told Tomlinson that her community was promoting environmentally benign baking soda as an alternative to harsher cleaning products - and they were upset Arm & Hammer wasn't somehow reciprocating.
Tomlinson invited the environmentalist to Canadian headquarters where she demonstrated an area of opportunity that simply hadn't occurred to the company.
Thus began a collaborative relationship with other groups, and a raft of fresh ideas and applications for the traditional product. As Makower reports, within 36 months the brand grew approximately 30% in Canada.
Are you sitting on green treasure?
If your company has made ongoing efficiency in product design a priority, chances are your products have become more eco-efficient in the process.
This may be cause for a green claim, or it may not.
Before calling the ad agency, call an NGO with expertise in your sector. They should be able to assess where you stand vis a vis the competition; tell you if your product can stand up to the increased scrutiny a public green claim would bring; and help you weigh the true value of 'green-ness' in your sector.
If your product is off the mark in any of the above, don't scrap the green brand dream. A not-quite-green but progressive product could invite collaboration that triggers exciting green innovation. Or perhaps your product could be held up internally as a model of your company's green future aspirations. Either way, there are benefits to your business.
- If you believe you have a green claim, invite informed opinions to assess the validity of that claim. Engage with an NGO. At minimum, they'll help you anticipate blind spots and potentially diffuse criticism. At best they'll provide some valuable insights or new opportunities you hadn't seen.
- Fail forward. Even if your green claim has flaws and isn't fit for consumers, analyze how it can be used to catalyze innovation, and how it can be held out to challenge employees.
- One good thing leads to another. Recognizing a product with potential green merit might be just what your company needs to create better, more far-reaching green policies - policies that in turn create efficiencies and better business results.
This story first appeared in Fast Company August 17, 2011 and is reprinted here with kind permission of the author.
Mark Stoiber -smallMarc Stoiber is a creative director, entrepreneur, green brand specialist and writer. He works with clients to build resilient, futureproof brands. Marc writes on brand innovation for Huffington Post, Fast Company, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Marc Stoiber on Twitter. You can find more articles by Marc at http://www.marcstoiber.com/