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Green at your peril

Innovations in the sustainability space could benefit from calling themselves anything but environmentally friendly.

The way you interpret the past year in green tech depends entirely on your perspective – if you're looking for good news, there's plenty: a record $260 billion in clean energy investments, a breakthrough in fuel cell technology, and major strides in the electric vehicle market. There's also the requisite bad news: the Solyndra bankruptcy, the anti-environment stance of US Republicans, news that global CO2 emissions are increasing, rather than declining.

Jumping the gun

A green label often robs a perfectly good technology of a fair assessment.

These divergent realities are a mark of the complexity of the green tech industry, which heralds major changes in energy provision, economic and political regimes, and consumer behaviour. Much of the sector's success depends on conveying a sense of validity to those in the bad news camp, who have written off the entire industry in the wake of one or two failures. Which is why innovators in the sustainability space would do well to stay away from the green label: it often robs a perfectly good technology of a fair assessment.

By all means, emphasise everything that makes it 'green' – efficiencies, energy savings, waste reduction – but focus too heavily on its environmental benefits and you risk being dismissed by a band of eager pessimists.

The sad fact is that the picture of sustainability is far gloomier than the reality. All across the world, products and services benefiting people, planet and profit are making inroads; yet, a lingering cynicism continues to erode the momentum of many others. Often the mere mention of 'green' has the barbs coming; news about the product is met with a stream of comments in all camps from people bubbling over with indignation. Sometimes the actual solution is never mentioned again, it's affiliation with environmental issues is enough to set off a rant, followed by a trail of fringe science URLs.

Coke calamity

Other times people are just, I'm sorry to say it, plain thick. Take the fuss over Coke's roll-out of white tins over Christmas, as a campaign with the World Wildlife Fund to highlight global warming's threat to polar bears. It's Coke, in a white can. Perhaps a little gimmicky, but it's for a good cause and there are no changes to the actual product. But what ensued was mass confusion because – horrors – these cans look too much like the Diet version. All those poor souls who were maliciously tricked into drinking sugary Coke because they couldn't be bothered to check the can. So much for raising awareness. What Coke did raise, in the end, was the ire of scores of consumers who complained of its “trickery” and being victimised by this “shock to the palate”. Read the whole ludicrous story here, but suffice to say, if the average consumer can't fathom a brief change of packaging for a worthy cause then they're clearly not in a planet-friendly state of mind.

There are so many inspired, elegantly efficient ideas out there, from picnic utensils to mobile apps, still relegated to eco-friendly shops or sites. The fact that these products remain the exception, tucked away in a separate section, is often because their 'green' characteristics have been emphasised at the expense of others – time and money-savings – for example, which have wider appeal.

People are creatures of habit, and for some reason, buying behaviour is particularly routine-bound. At Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference last year, speakers noted that consumers are frequently confused due to the plethora of 'green' labels on shelves.

Suzanne Shelton, CEO of sustainability PR firm the Shelton Group, said shoppers rely on product labels to inform them about green credentials, but don't trust the companies that make them. They don't have the time, energy, or focus to think about the consequences of their buying decisions. “We just grab the same stuff off the shelf that we always grab off the shelf,” she said.

Breaking the habit

And so these items – the well-known brands and household staples – need to become more sustainable in their production and manufacture. There's a big market for green products and that shouldn't have to suffer, but those consumers already know the facts – they know what to look out for and which companies walk the talk.

It's the millions of people who continue to buy the exact same things they did 20 years ago, even when green products are price competitive, that companies and start-ups need to target. Innovators should focus on making their solutions so ingrained in the marketplace, so commonplace and accepted, that people aren't even aware they're using it. We don't necessarily need more green items, we need more of the established brands becoming environmentally friendly – not a separate green version, just the original product, made better.

Fortunately, several major companies have started cleaning up their operations and supply chains, and refitting infrastructure because it makes financial sense. As GreenBiz writes in its annual report on the state of green business, companies are adopting building technologies because they are more cost-effective and create better places to work; they make energy upgrades to save money and improve operations. They set greenhouse gas reduction goals because doing so can reduce long-term risk.

At a recent UN summit on climate risk and energy solutions, the VP of General Electric's Ecomagination programme said there's no real division between environment and economy. “There's this theory that you have to pick one: economics or environmental performance. That's nonsense. Innovation is the way you can have both. Companies that don't get this really risk becoming irrelevant to the marketplace.”

The good news/bad news dichotomy will perhaps always dog the low-carbon industry – for every triumph claimed by renewables, there's bound to be a sombre 'yes, but...'; for every new electric vehicle, a rehearsed comeback about range and charging; and for every remarkably efficient design, a negative little voice finding fault. There will always be those who remain stubbornly unmoving, who will find any justification for apathy, and for whom the glass is half empty. But glass half-empty people don't change the world.


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