OPINION: Accentuate the Positive: The Easiest and Best Way for a Small to Medium Enterprise to Green Product Offerings

Dispatched from the SSC Team

Large multi-national corporations seem to be falling all over each other to get to the front of the green race, from news about Clorox’s Greenworks line to Wal-Mart affixing solar panels to store roofs. The good thing about the hype over “green” in boardrooms across the Fortune 100 is that these über-brands are helping push sustainability from fringe to mainstream and providing us smaller organizations some valuable lessons-learned (the bad news is, consumers are increasingly confused about green offerings).

For now, let’s stick to the good news.

In the recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Gregory Unruh and Richard Ettenson outline three broad strategies that these major players have been using to successfully launch themselves into the green product realm (“Growing Green,” Harvard Business Review, June 2010).

1. Accentuate: Take what you already have and make it greener (Dell computers switching to compostable bamboo packaging; Brita water filters pointing the finger at bottled water producers and providing a better alternative)

2. Acquire: Buy a green brand and make it your own (L’Oreal’s acquisition of The Body Shop; Unilever’s purchase of Ben and Jerry’s)

3. Architect: Build something green from scratch (e.g. Clorox’s Greenworks line; Toyota’s Prius)

In their article, Unruh and Ettenson seem to be addressing the “big guys” – companies who have robust R&D departments or piles of cash on hand to buy up a smaller operation, like Kraft did when it swallowed Cadbury whole this winter.

But for the small to medium enterprise that is looking to sell sustainable products, the most straightforward way is focusing on greening up what you already do well, i.e. “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative.” That is, take a look at what you’re already selling and then examine it through a green lens.

“Select companies will find that some of their existing offerings already have real green advantages that can be highlighted and built upon,” said Unruh in a recent blog post. For example, I’m always pouring distilled white vinegar in the toilet to get the lime scale stains out, and it works brilliantly! Maybe that’s why the Heinz Vinegar website touts vinegar’s “all-natural” qualities and showcases vinegar’s myriad uses around the home.

The key takeaway here is: The product already exists, and it’s already greener than available alternatives. The next step is spreading the good news through marketing channels.

Another way to accentuate is to modify existing products or product offerings in a sustainable way. For example, a traditional printing company can switch to high recycled-content paper and natural inks and re-position the business as a “green printer.” A local pizza parlor can source locally, buy organic, and invest in a Prius and a couple of 10-speeds for its delivery team – “green pizza.” You run a coffee shop? You’d better be buying Fair Trade and making a note of it on your recyclable paper cups.

Broadening a knowledge base to accommodate the green-minded customer could serve you as well. You sell building supplies? Well read up on the Forestry Stewardship Council and make sure you have FSC timber on hand to educate your green-leaning customer.

A recent article by Houston Neal, the director of marketing for Software Advice, offered five green product offerings that he feels electricians should use to drive new business in the increasingly green-aware marketplace. Neal simply points out that a) the demand for energy efficient systems is rising and b) electricians are going to be the ones on the ground doing the fitting and retrofitting. So the smart thing for them to do is c) develop a set of green product offerings – things like offering a lighting retrofit service, solar panel installation, energy monitoring system installation, etc. Adding these “products” will put electricians on the green offensive and give them an edge when putting in bids or making client pitches.

Using green marketing to sell your more sustainable products isn’t without risks of course.

“Touting the green attributes of some products inevitably prompts the response ‘Great! But what about the rest of your offerings?’” Unruh and Ettenson note. “A big gulf between your green and non-green products can undermine your legitimate sustainability claims.”

Sure, it is a great idea to green your product offerings and market them accordingly – both for business and for the environment – but unless you’re also actively “eliminating the negative” environmental impact of other product offerings, and the company’s operations as a whole, you will be called out as a “greenwasher” and lose your sustainability credibility.

While the marketing team works out how to green the products, the leadership team should be “developing internal know-how and organizational structures for identifying, evaluating and managing the sustainability issues surrounding the company and its operations,” says Unruh in the blog post cited above.

And if you don’t know where to start or need help developing your new sustainable structure, contact us! SSC is here to help you identify your low-hanging fruit as well as help you create systemic change within your organization.