In March, I had the opportunity to attend the 2008 International Housewares Show at McCormick Place in Chicago. Every spring, the show takes up three of the four gigantic halls covering everything from small, local pot holder manufacturers to giant international appliance manufacturers, like Haier (China based “white goods” manufacturer with annual sales over 15 billion).
Most people I know go for the exhibition portion of the event, but there are also conferences. This year, one of the predominant themes was green. There was also a special section on the floor for green design and many of the speakers also had a presence in this area. (At the end of this I will post a list of those who presented.)
The exhibition area also had many manufacturers marketing a sustainable position. The claims ranged from using post consumer waste (as in the Sustain Mug by Aladdin) to using classic design forms that would inspire consumers to keep them forever.
I have to admit that it was kind of funny to see everyone trying to add a little green appeal to their offer. From listening to a few colleagues there with me, it was hard to resist wanting to “out” certain companies for greenwashing.
To me, this is a sign that the system of bringing sustainable products to the mainstream market is working.
As the big brands become aware of what’s working with the smaller start-ups they’re going to become informed and possibly a little threatened. Their first reaction is going to be safe, easy to modify and generally indicative of slow conservative thought process developed around consistent financial performance for investors. In this phase it also means that while they play catch-up, they’re going to be taking ideas from the smaller more nimble companies.
Eventually the big corporations that follow the money are going to catch up and then they’ll do what made them big in the first place—they’ll do it better and more inexpensively. The secret for the start-ups is to find a way to profit from helping the larger companies through this cycle or have the vision and long-range discipline to build and develop into one of those larger companies.
What I’m trying to get at here is that in the big picture, pointing the finger at greenwashers is a waste of time. Sure it’s fun and even valid but it also increases skepticism about ALL claims, which doesn’t help the overall cause. It’s also often motivated by fear of the inevitable cycle described above.
One made-up example: a small manufacturer like the Green Glass company making barware from recycled glass bottles works hard to gain a place on the shelf as a sustainable product. They do a great job and naturally an established tabletop player like Libbey glass takes note of the success and begins researching. While in the process of researching how to pair the idea with the aesthetics of the main stream market and the volume/price demands of mass retail, they do the brand responsible thing and test a marketing campaign that promotes an incremental step, maybe partial reclamation of glass. Now the smaller start-up takes note and screams GREENWASHING. The majority of consumers hear “mine is REALLY green and yours is just sort of green” and they decide for themselves who to believe. So, the small player (soon to be smaller) focuses on the small group of consumers that pats them on the back for being greenest of the green while the larger player solves the real problem of giving consumers what they want in a sustainable way.
This is not to say that the small company can’t solve this problem. They can, but to do that they have to focus on what the consumer wants them to sell and not want they want to sell the consumer.
So, who really is greener?
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