Rising Tide of 'Green'

In one TV commercial, Waste Management touts its "Think Green" campaign with a truck, as sparkling clean as a showroom car, wheeling down a country road flanked by a lush forest. In another, General Electric features a dancing elephant in a rain forest to illustrate its "Ecomagination" campaign.

In print advertisements, ExxonMobil plugs its role in developing engine and fuel systems "that could improve fuel economy by 30 percent while significantly reducing emissions," and Lexus promotes a hybrid motor that provides "more power with 70 percent fewer smog-forming emissions."

Closer to home, in press releases, Delta Air Lines pledges to soon plant trees on behalf of any passenger willing to pay extra for tickets. Coca-Cola promises a drop of energy and water consumption by 23 percent and 15 percent, respectively, at its headquarters.

All of this eco-talk getting you hungry? At Ted's Montana Grill, "we try very hard to preserve the environment." By the way, entrees come "with a side order of good conscience ... Eat great. Do good."

Between the commercials and alongside the ads are plentiful news stories, often fed to media by increasingly eco-minded public relations agencies, about companies' environmentally friendly measures.

What in the name of Rachel Carson, the godmother of U.S. environmentalism, has prompted companies to portray themselves as save-the-planet souls? Twenty years after Gordon Gekko infamously proclaimed "greed is good" in the movie "Wall Street," here's the current mantra in marketing circles: Green is good.

Companies are colorizing themselves in a leafy hue, creating buzzwords with an "eco" prefix and leaping onto the bandwagon --- powered, of course, by alternative fuel.

"The green wave has become unavoidable," says Eric Biel, managing director of corporate responsibility with the public relations outfit Burson-Marsteller. "The most striking single thing [in PR] is the rapid growth in which companies are positioning or repositioning their environmentalism."

Atlanta-based Novelis bills itself as the world's largest supplier of rolled aluminum, an industry that hardly endears itself to greenies. Novelis wished to spread the word that it recycled 24 billion discarded beverage cans last year, 45 percent of all those collected in North America.

"The volume has been turned up lately on the communications," says Paul Dusseault of the PR outfit Fleishman-Hilliard, who handles the Novelis account. His role is to personalize numbers by "telling stories" that might attract media coverage.

The trend is motored by a convergence of forces, from A (altruism) to Z (zealous environmentalists arm-twisting companies). Against the once-prevailing assumption, going green can bring in more greenbacks --- greater profits.

Surveys indicate that 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, according to Pam Ellen, associate professor of marketing at Georgia State University. Consumers can be lured to businesses that take easily understood actions, such as the high-end California restaurants that no longer ship in bottled water but carbonate it from the tap. Or Home Depot slapping green labels on designated items in its stores.

Pro-active businesses can make consumers "feel better about themselves," Ellen says. "It is not a risk for a company to support environmentalism."

Now that global warming has evolved from unproven theory to widely accepted concept, Ellen says, "companies feel pressure to do something. They'll have to speak to shareholders, the media and customers on how they address these important issues."

An eye on rivals, too

A keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality has prodded some companies to match or exceed the efforts of industry rivals. Managing Director Rob Baskin of Manning Selvage & Lee in Atlanta says his PR firm might conduct an audit of all things socially conscious (or lacking of same) within a client's operation, even check out an adversary's activities as well, then make recommendations.

"If we see an opportunity to help establish a company's [environmental] credibility," he says, "you can have a pretty powerful message."

Environmental watchdogs point out that companies, especially those publicly owned, stop short of adopting policies that do not generate a full return on the dollar.

"The key to businesses making changes is profit," says Rona Fried, founder and president of the networking site SustainableBusiness.com. Companies might dip their toe into the movement by limiting waste, then realize they save money in doing so and pursue other innovations that benefit the environment and the bottom line.

Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com, an online site for environmental news, says "very few companies will turn themselves inside out in the name of Mother Earth. It's more of a business motivation."

Environmental advocates disagree over the prevalence of another factor --- a genuine sense of do-gooding by companies. But in one case, their voices create a chorus of cheers for an executive who went green before it was fashionable.

'I started to sweat'

Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface, a carpet manufacturer anchored in Atlanta, remembers fielding questions in the early 1990s from designers and architects on what internal practices were kind to the environment.

"The answer," he recalls, "was nothing." Or, as his lieutenant Jim Hartzfeld translated, "I am destroying life to make money."

Invited to deliver a speech on his environmental vision in '94, the West Point native realized: "I didn't have one. I started to sweat over what to say."

He fortuitously stumbled across a book, "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken, that bemoaned destructive business methods while offering alternatives.

"It became an epiphanal experience," Anderson, 73, says. "We changed then to lead ourselves to sustainability and, beyond that, to restorative."

Initially in the halls of Interface, "there was huge skepticism," he says, the sales staff whispering among themselves. "They'd thought I had gone around the bend."

Immediate profit

The first step was reducing waste. When the costs were compiled, Hartzfeld says, "Everybody here was high-fiving each other on the margins. It generated financial savings immediately."

Interface advanced its mission by recycling carpet and using carpet tiles and squares. Now, 13 years after Anderson's awakening, Interface has declared itself climate-neutral in North America, with a vow to eliminate any negative environmental impact by 2020.

"And this has been profitable almost from Day One," says Hartzfeld, citing lower operating costs.

In green circles, Anderson has been elevated to folk hero.

"If this good ol' boy from Georgia Tech can do this, it's not simply an issue for tree huggers," says Makower. "The Interface story has inspired countless companies, big and small. I don't believe there is a CEO of a billion-dollar-[a-year] company who compares to Ray."

Anderson received so many inquiries on his company's formula that he started a consulting offshoot called InterfaceRAISE, run by Hartzfeld. Among their clients has been Wal-Mart, which rolls out press releases about fresh initiatives assembly-line style.

Giants join in

The retail behemoth's original motivation to do right might have been to polish its reputation and save some pennies, Hartzfeld says. But no more. Echoes Anderson, "It's a very sincere effort on their part."

Wal-Mart unveiled a campaign last month featuring products such as low-energy light bulbs and organic cotton clothes. This, a day after Home Depot launched Eco Options, which includes similar long-lasting bulbs and 2,799 other products deemed relatively undamaging to the environment.

"Once [companies] see the business opportunities [with greenish tactics], it becomes a race to invest in this, rather than see how little can we spend for some goodwill," Hartzfeld says.

One beneficiary of the shifting winds is Green Team, a New York communications agency that primarily shapes green-shaded ad messages for clients.

In fact, says Vice President Hank Stewart, "we're starting to hit a danger point where people are going to get green burnout. We've already seen that. You can't walk into a newsstand without getting hit by a green [magazine] issue on something."

For years, many businesses were hesitant to boast about their baby steps. Maybe they couldn't back up their claims. Or, says Makower, the editor, promotional efforts "could shine a light on what they're not doing right."

So the PR community speaks as one to clients eager to pound the drums about their environmentally favorable activity: Before you talk the talk, be certain that you walk the walk.

In 2000, former Ford Motor CEO Bill Ford vowed to increase fuel mileage in SUVs within five years. When the company later rolled out gas-gulping vehicles, environmental groups paid for print ads that depicted Ford with a long, Pinocchio-like nose.

Ford was accused of "greenwashing," the eco-world's slur for those whose actions contradict or soften their clean-up-the-world words.

"For a significant number of companies, this is a fad and there is greenwash," Hartzfeld says.

Dennis Creech sees various shades of green. "Some companies do light green," the executive director of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Southface, which promotes sustainability in homes, businesses and communities, says of token efforts. "I'm not sure they are trying to deceive the public. They just don't always understand what it entails."

Greenwashing is in the eye of the beholder. As for Delta's tree-for-a-ticket program, "I would call [it] greenwashing," says Fried of SustainableBusiness.com. "Conservation is a lot more than replanting trees."

Biel, the Burson-Marsteller publicist, concedes the idea might seem gimmicky. "On the other hand, it can have a real impact if it's part of a broader context and gets people interested."

Energy producers such as Southern Co., which counts Georgia Power as a subsidiary, have long been branded as environmental nemeses. Georgia Power, airing commercials with a nature setting, has tried to "green up" with programs, notably allowing customers to pay a premium for the company to purchase energy made from renewable sources.

Color Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, unimpressed.

"Within the environmental community, Georgia Power and the Southern Co. are the farthest from green than any utilities we deal with," he said. "They are extremely aggressive in opposing any sort of regulatory action in protecting the environment. ... Maximum PR with minimal benefit."

Ultimately, it's up to consumers to decide whether a company's claims in ads and news stories hold water, clean or dirty.

"On the short term, maybe you can fool them," Biel says. But, over the long haul, "it's harder to pull the wool over the eyes of people."

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