Marketers, so adept at converting threats into opportunities, should relish the challenge. Pretty soon, if we are to credit the Stern Report, they really will find themselves selling ice to eskimos.
Green, as a marketing trend, has had a chequered career. Remember Ecover, the environmentally friendly detergent brand? Well, yes – it’s still with us; not so most of the me-toos that launched around it in a paroxysm of sustainability during the early 1990s. The movement quietly bubbles on. You can buy solar panels for as little as £9,000 these days in Currys and Powergen has launched a WhisperGen boiler, a snip at £3,000, that allegedly pays for itself in four years by generating electricity as it warms the house. All in all, we could be excused for believing that green is a faith that preaches to a small, middle class elite – the sort who buy the GeeWhiz electric car and install a wind turbine in their back garden. For the rest, market values such as price, quality and affordability continue to hold sway.
Even so, there is reason to believe that the Stern Report will prove a turning point. It is not that Sir Nicholas Stern said anything original; he’s not paid to: he’s not a scientist. But because he is one of the world’s most respected economists, his apocalyptic pronouncements have articulated the problem of environmental degradation in a way that neither the business community nor government can ignore. Green taxes are certainly coming. The only questions are: in what form, how punitive and when? Some sectors seem to have grasped the long-term implications of climate change (in opinion) far better than others. Shortlisted contenders for the Green Awards for environmentally sound marketing reveal P&G pushing consumers to use Ariel at lower machine-wash temperatures and O2 challenging itself to create packaging no bigger than the letter box through which couriers must post their mobile phones. These are small but practical incremental changes that begin to rein back a culture of conspicuous waste. Notably absent from the awards were, according to the organiser, any entries from the cosmetics industry. Which shines an interesting light on, for example, L’Oréal’s acquisition of The Body Shop.
Another sector unlikely to win many accolades is air travel, particularly at the no-frills end. Though by no means the biggest contributor to carbon emissions, Stern singled out air travel as the fastest growing cause of climate change. It’s an unenviable reputation to acquire, and one which brings with it considerable baggage for the marketing department of the future. Michael O’Leary, uncrowned king of the airways, does his sector little service when he dismisses calls to curb carbon emissions as the "usual horseshit" and displaces the blame on to power generation and road transport. The problem with this line of argument is it fails to distinguish between the relatively stable and the necessary on the one hand, and the fast-escalating and the optional on the other. The aviation industry enjoys many current advantages – subsidised infrastructure, no tax on fuel or VAT on transactions among them – which would seem to make it vulnerable to fiscal reappraisal, should politicians be casting about for an easy target.
People in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones.