Why forecasts were so Green

Forecasts in the late Eighties that the UK was to become a nation of ethical and ecology-conscious consumers turned out to be vastly exaggerated.

Where are all the mainstream products that we were told would enable us to become eco-friendly? Where are all the organic foodstuffs?

Sainsbury’s says organic foods have never generated more than one per cent of fruit, meat and vegetable sales. They have remained niche products – more expensive than their non-organic counterparts and bought by a minority of consumers prepared to pay for their principles.

And what has happened to all those specialist Green detergents? Their shelf space seems to have shrunk dramatically, or disappeared altogether.

During the boom years of the Eighties there were indications that large numbers of consumers could be persuaded to pay a premium for the privilege of helping to save the planet. The advent of recession quickly destroyed any hope that this altruism would last. The priorities for consumers and companies alike became cost and value.

Consumer resistance to Green and ethical marketing was further galvanised by the hyperbole of advertisers desperate to become “caring”. At one point, it seemed that almost every product you could buy helped, in one way or another, to avert global catastrophe.

Now that economic conditions have improved, some marketers are seeking to determine whether Green and ethical marketing has a future in the UK. To this end, it is helpful to look at the experience of countries where such issues are high on the agenda.

In Germany, for example, Green claims are surprisingly rare in advertising because environmentalism has become integrated into the very fabric of the nation’s consciousness. It is taken for granted that companies embrace strict eco-friendly standards in their products.

To a certain extent, the UK experience is similar. The “Greenness” of products such as detergents tends to be taken for granted. Competition is driven by technological innovation, rather than ethics.

Unlike Germany, the integration of env ironmentalism into the country’s mainstream political and social life has not yet happened. Any company adopting an ethical or Green stance must demonstrate that it offers valuable benefits.

The Co-operative Bank is one company that has met these aims. It advertises itself as an bank that refuses to invest in organisations which it considers ethically or environmentally unsound, while simultaneously emphasising its customer services.

In the early days of the environmental and ethical “revolution” astute observers recognised that one of the greatest mistakes any marketer could make is to confuse what consumers say they will pay for with what they will actually pay for. With this in mind, Green and ethical marketing may yet have a limited role to play.

John Shannon is president of Grey International.