According to the American Marketing Association, the term "green marketing" came into prominence in the late '80s and early '90s. Since that time, the concept of becoming sustainable has gone from an afterthought to top priority for many companies.
"When we started eleven years ago, we were helping some companies and government agencies with their environmental marketing. However, we would never have envisioned the explosion of interest that we've seen over the past 18 months," says Kevin Tuerff, president and co-founder of Enviromedia, a marketing firm in Austin, Texas. While Tuerff has seen a wide range of environmentally sound success stories, he's also seen examples of greenwashing, a way of misleading consumers about a company's environmental benefits or practices.
"We're on a crusade to encourage people to avoid such businesses," Tuerff explains. "A lot of businesses have been scrambling to do something and oftentimes they're a little misguided, trying to find the quickest, easiest solution so they can take advantage of this tidal wave of interest from customers."
Along with corporate leaders, like Wal-Mart, who have been trendsetting over the past few years with their environmental initiatives, many small and midsize businesses are taking the time and effort to get their house in order before spreading the word to the media.
For New Belgium Brewing, the concept of a "natural" business was born when Jeff Lebesch and his wife Kim Jordan opened a small brewery in 1991. "They hiked up into Rocky Mountain National Park with a notepad and homebrew and wrote down the core values and beliefs for their company, many of which were surrounding environmental stewardship," explains Greg Owlsley, the vice president of marketing for New Belgium. By 1998 the company had switched from using electricity to wind power. From there the brewery continued with sustainable business and building practices such as daylighting to reuse heat in the brewery.
It wasn't until the surge of sustainable marketing erupted in recent years, however, that New Belgium began to tout what they'd been doing all along. "It dawned on us that we were underselling our sustainability from a branding standpoint and that if people found out about our investment in the environment, it would make them want to drink more of our beer," Owleley says, adding that he prefers the term "marketing sustainability" over the more commercial "green marketing."
Despite the fact that New Belgium now sells more than half a million barrels a year in 18 states and employs more than 300 people, the company's marketing does not feature flashy hype or fanfare. Instead it focuses largely on spreading the word by drawing CEOs and representatives from other companies to tour the facility and learn how sustainability can be accomplished.
For Curtis Packaging, a 163-year old luxury packaging company based in Sandy Hook Connecticut, the move to sustainability was a conscious initiative. "About five years ago we decided to look at trying to green the business and be more environmentally friendly while remaining luxurious, so we dubbed ourselves luxuriously responsible," explains Don Droppo, Jr., the vice president for sales and marketing.
Some five years later, Curtis Packaging has committed to purchasing a total of 4,524,800 kilowatt-hours of renewable energy per year--enough to cover all of its energy usage--while also becoming the first packaging and printing business to have a 100 percent carbon neutral footprint.
As part of the packaging industry, Curtis Packaging not only needed to improve their in-house environmental policies but also needed products that would environmentally translate to their high end-clients. "In luxury packaging, people use foils, and that's not recyclable, so we came out with a product called Curt Chrome, which is an environmentally friendly alternative to foil. It's metallic based ink and 100 percent recyclable," Droppo explains.
The marketing for Curtis includes reaching their customers through trade magazines such as Global Cosmetics and Package Design Magazine. "I've also been giving a ton of presentations at sustainable packaging forums, and places like the Health and Beauty Show to get the word out there," Droppo says, acknowledging that a lot of marketing is done by word-of-mouth between companies. Additionally, Curtis passes along the message to end consumers by having clients put green messages on their packaging, such as "carton made with wind power" or "carton manufactured in a carbon neutral facility."
Is it all paying off? Apparently. "Over the last five years our sales have gone from 20 to 50 million," Droppo says. "It's a huge increase and having environmentally friendly proprietary products is a major reason."
Unlike the natural roots of New Belgium or the successful transformation of Curtis Packaging, Pangea Organics was conceived during the current era of global concern and environmental sustainability. "I wanted to start a company that could be a role model for the different processes that you could put in place to become a profitable company, but do so by respecting your employees, the people making your products, the planet and the end user as well," says Pangea CEO and founder, Joshua Scott Onysko, who left school at age 16 and took odd jobs for eight years, while traveling the world and learning firsthand about environmental concerns. Onysko started Pangea in 2001 and launched the first brand in 2005.
"We're basically integrating people, profits and the planet into everything we do," Onysko says. The company sources ingredients from 52 different countries and supports 80,000 acres of land where organic agricultural products are grown. Pangea even has a 3,000 square foot garden that is operated by the employees and feeds the whole staff seven months out of the year.
Package design has also been used to generate interest. "Boxes are made out of 100 percent post consumer newspaper with no petrochemical in the process," Onysko says. In addition, Pangea uses viral marketing by putting product demos into the hands of people and the press. The results are impressive as the $10 million company will double in size in the next year.
"It's more than changing your logo from blue to green," Tuerff says, acknowledging a far more environmentally savvy consumer base. "Businesses that are proven to be sustainable are the ones that people will respond to and not those that are simply promoting themselves as green because they've changed their light bulbs."
Rich Mintzer is a journalist and author of more than 50 nonfiction books, including several on starting a business. He hails from Westchester, New York, where he lives with his family.