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Joel Makower

Joel Makower is co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., which produces GreenBiz.com and its sister sites, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, GreenerDesign.com, and GreenerComputing.com. He has written for over 20[…]

Companies need to get better at explaining the benefits of their sustainable products.

Question: Should businesses be responsible for promoting rnhealthy lifestyles?

Joel Makower: I think it’s the rnresponsibility of business to make products in a green way and make rnproducts that are perceived to be responsible both in terms of the rnproducts themselves and how the companies behind them operate.  rnCompanies can only go so far in terms of getting people to eat well, or rnexercise, or not abuse their bodies in any number of different ways and rnnot abuse the planet, as well.  But there’s a lot that companies can rndo.  Companies have a tremendous communications cloud.  And a lot of rncompanies I talk to say, "Well, customers aren’t demanding that.  We’re rnnot hearing that from the consumer."  Well, consumers buy lots of thingsrn they didn’t demand.  It’s things that we make available tot hem that wern convince them that they want.  And so there’s an opportunity here to rnhelp promote a lifestyle that’s more environmentally responsible.  rnProbably healthier for families and communities as well. But they have rnto, as I said, be better products, or perceived to have some value rnbeyond that. 

People want to change without changing.  When it rncomes to change, people love the noun, hate the verb.  Right?  So, it’s rnvery hard for people to really, you know, want to make dramatic changes rnin their life unless they see some specific improvement for themselves. rn

So the unfortunate part, but it is the reality, is that when itrn comes to "saving the planet" it’s really about, what’s in it for me?  rnMe first, and then the planet, so I’m not going to make the big change rnin my life.  I’m not going to switch brands, I’m not going to go out of rnmy way; pretty much I’m not going to pay any more for the privilege of rndoing the right thing.  I have to get something out of that.  And maybe rnit’s just pride, it maybe that people just do that, maybe it’s a badge rnof honor, maybe it’s just self-satisfaction.  But in more cases than rnnot, it has to be some financial or performance or other kind of rnbenefit. 

So I think to the extent that companies can help us rnunderstand what those benefits are and can, in fact, design products andrn services that aren’t just greener, but better, there will be rnopportunities here. 

One of the other realities is that rncompanies aren’t very good at storytelling around this stuff.  Companiesrn are really good at storytelling in general, but when it comes to the rnenvironment, storytelling takes on a particularly important part of rnthis. When you think about what we’re talking about here.  On one hand rnwe’re talking about incredible complex, geeky, scientific, technical rnissues about which even the experts don’t always agree.  And on the rnother hand, we’re talking about our bodies and our families and our kidsrn and our community and our future and our planet.  So, it’s head and rnheart.  Right?  And if you ever spent any time talking to anyone about rnthis, you know, that if you go one millimeter too far in either rndirection you lose your audience.  You’re either too over-you-head, I rndon’t know what you’re talking about.  This is too complex for me. Or rnyou’re too sort of California woo-woo around this and you lose your rnaudience in either case. 

And so storytelling is how we rnintegrate head and heart.  It’s how we take complex things and make themrn accessible, and companies haven’t done a very good job of doing that.  rnYou know, there’s this line that’s just, you know... if I just say rnKermit, you’ll know exactly what the line is.  "It’s not easy being rngreen," is the song lyric that Kermit sang.  You know how long ago that rnwas?  Forty-one years ago, in 1969.  It’s older than Earth Day.  And rnthat still represent the state of the art of green marketing. 

Irn get press releases every day, come-ons, pitches, advertising slicks, rnall kinds of things from copywriters, advertising agencies, PR firms, rnand the like.  And I know that the person... they contain that Kermit rnline and some version of it, "It isn’t that easy"—and I know the rncopywriter that wrote that thinks the she or he is the most clever rnperson for having come up with that.  And the fact is, it’s tired, it’s rnhackneyed, and it’s not even true.  It’s not that easy being green.  It rnactually takes some work.  So we need to find better ways to communicatern and tell those stories.

Question:
What’s a rnbetter way to tell these stories?

Joel Makower: You rnknow, in the 1990's, during the dot-com boom of the late '90s, there wasrn this, this axiom that "content is king."  That those companies that hadrn content would be the ones that ruled the universe in the new connected rndigital internet world.  And a lot of those companies, most of them wentrn away.  And it turns out that it wasn’t content that was king, it was rncontext.  Context is king.  And if you look at the companies that rnsurvived, the eBays and Googles and Yahoos, and others, those are the rnones that... Craig’s List, and those are the firms that made sense in rnall that massive information out there that give it some kind of rncontext.  Some ability to organize and find things and have things rnelevate to... things that are the most important of all and relative to rnyour interests or relative to your friends.  And so context is what's rnmissing here in terms of company storytelling.  They want to know that rnsomething is good or better for the environment.  They want to know the rncontext.  Because if you say this is green and don’t know if you should rnbuy it, well how green, or is it really green, or how is it... is it thern only issue that product as.  Is the company trying to say you're green rnas a result of that? 

So I think people want to know that you rnunderstand as a company, what your environmental issues are.  They want rnto know that you know your problems, that you’ve done your homework.  rnAnd then they want to know that you’re on the case; that you’re doing rnsomething about that, that you’ve got some plan and some kind of rncommitment. And that you have some... and that you’re talking about thisrn openly and authentically and not just waving your arms and quoting rnKermit and saying, hey aren't we green.  But actually putting it into rncontext and giving it some, some sense of this is what we’re doing rightrn now, but this is part of a journey that we’re on.  This is a part of a rnlong-term proposition.  We’re not claiming that by doing this that we’rern a green company. 

I think that people who... the companies thatrn can demonstrate that they understand their problems from an rnenvironmental perspective, have a plan in place to do something about rnit—even if it’s long-term and imperfect and never gets them to be rnperfectly good, which no company really ever will be—and are talking rnabout that openly and authentically will be in... will have laid a rnfoundation for being able to make specific environmental claims and put rnout environmental products and talk about environmental issues in a rncredible way and even to innovate and fail and still land on their feet rnand not be charged as green washers, or as phonies, or just ignored.  rnAnd I think that companies don’t lay that foundation, they don’t create rnthat context that the need in order to make that specific environmental rnclaims. 

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica rnLiebman