Stern lessons for the green sector

Brand owners are gearing up to launch a flood of environmentally friendly products as they seek to cash in on consumers’ fears about global warming.

Early signs of the new gold rush are evident at electrical chain Currys, which is selling solar panels that cost £9,000. Meanwhile, Powergen has launched the WhisperGen boiler which heats the home and generates electricity as a by-product. It is not cheap at £3,000, but Powergen claims it pays for itself within four years. Along with energy saving lightbulbs, these are just the beginning.

Last week’s Stern Report warned of catastrophic consequences unless measures are taken to reduce carbon emissions. This apocalyptic vision creates a huge opportunity for marketers to play on consumers’ concerns and launch premium products offering them environmental peace of mind.

A spokeswoman for consultancy Added Value says: “Consumers are frustrated and scared by what they see on TV. Marketing is going to have to provide solutions.” She adds that companies are quietly working on new products with environmental benefits and believes there will be a “sea change” over the next year as the new green products are launched.

At Added Value’s recent Branding for Good conference, marketers were asked to suggest green innovations. One idea was for an ethical mobile phone with long-life batteries and a tariff that rewards those who keep their handset longer. Downloadable upgrades would remove the need for changing phones and its charger would switch off automatically when not in use.

Another proposal was for a travel industry-endorsed scheme where everyone has a personal carbon trading account enabling them, for instance, to buy the carbon surplus from a friend if they wanted to fly to Australia. Another plan would be to create a retailer reward scheme based on an ethical points system rather than expenditure.

However, there have already been false dawns for ethical products. When environmental issues surfaced in the media in the 1980s, green products such as Ecover detergent sold well, but the sector’s fortunes faded as other matters gained salience. This time round, though, it looks like the issue of climate change is here to stay.

Paul Walton, chairman of innovation agency The Value Engineers, says brand owners are looking at issues of transparency in sourcing, how products are made and ethics as well as the products’ effects on the environment. But he adds: “The big question is whether this has mainstream appeal or is for an educated middle-class niche. Will people pay for the trade-offs between performance and price against a set of other needs?” Meanwhile, some sectors are finding it harder to play the green innovation game than others. According to Graham Lewis, creative director of Satellite Marketing Communications, which organises the Green Awards for environmentally sound marketing, not one entry has been received from a cosmetics company, a sector which has been criticised for creating wasteful packaging.

Shortlisted for the awards are Procter & Gamble’s “Turn to 30” campaign for Ariel encouraging consumers to wash clothes at lower temperatures. Mobile phone company O2’s “Letterbox challenge” innovation has packaging for mobile phones that can fit through letterboxes, avoiding the need for them to be sent by courier.

Brand owners are torn between gaining first mover advantage by launching green products early or holding fire as they learn from others’ mistakes. Much will depend on the prevailing media climate. But as long as environmental issues keep making front-page news, marketers will continue the search for green gold.

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