Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Turning green - with ennui

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Now that almost everyone is embracing sustainability, businesses need something else to stand out from the crowd.

Marketing yourself as green, organic or 'authentic' is not edgy or brave or courageous these days. Illustration / Anna Chrichton
Marketing yourself as green, organic or 'authentic' is not edgy or brave or courageous these days. Illustration / Anna Chrichton

My favourite local cafe uses a shovel for a door handle and has chairs covered in fraying hessian coffee sacks. It used to be called Kokako and only sold vegetarian food and had a bit of a rustic vibe.

Everything was organic and you could count on at least one customer having dreadlocks.

But this is Parnell after all, and now it is called Domain Ayr, has Scandinavian-chic pine decor, free-range ham sandwiches, a bicycle on the wall and recycled serviettes. Is there anything more ridiculous than rich hippies?

Honestly, it's a really neat cafe. But you can't sit there and watch the little Steve Jobs wannabes having their networking meetings over wheatgrass smoothies without conceding that marketing yourself as green, organic or "authentic" is not edgy or brave or courageous these days, but pretty much as bog-standard a corporate position as you can get.

Frankly, I wouldn't have thought there was much premium in claiming to be sustainable now it has reached the Eastern Suburbs. But I was wrong.

The Herald's new Element supplement this week - a joint venture with a boutique publisher called Viridian Media - which is focused on "a better way of living", was a virile 56 pages. There is obviously no shortage of companies still keen to hitch themselves to the sustainability mantra, with full-page ads from mainstream corporations Meridian Energy, BNZ and Mitsubishi.

There is green in being green. Nothing wrong with that. I'm just not sure whether there is much cachet in boasting about eco-anything any more; I saw a truck oxymoronically labelled "Eco Waste" the other day. I'm not talking about greenwashing or saying these companies are faking it - just that perhaps their stories warrant being in the mainstream paper with no gratuitous backslapping.

It does strike me that declaring your company to be a crusader for all that is "green" is a bit of a confused position.

I'm assuming those evangelically green companies believe that everyone else should be following their lead and doing as they are doing. But self-interest dictates that they don't think that, really.

Because if everyone does, then the self-righteous companies in the vanguard will lose their unique selling proposition.

That might be happening already. Back in 2009, the Harvard Business Review published an article saying that sustainability was the key driver of innovation and there was no alternative to sustainable development.

Then in 2010, the United Nations Global Compact conducted a survey on sustainability and found that 93 per cent of businesses consider it important to their future success.

This year a new study by MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group found that despite the economic downturn and tenuous recovery, more than two-thirds of businesses were strengthening their commitment to sustainability.

The research found that 69 per cent of companies surveyed plan to step up their investment in and management of sustainability this year.

So if more than two-thirds of companies are already using a spade as a door handle, there is parity and where's the benefit in marketing yourself as green?

Remember the hype when the internet first went mainstream? Every second company said it was spesh because it had got one of those newfangled website thingies. Now it would look embarrassing to skite about it. Same with sustainability.

Companies might find customers respect them more if they just deal with the environment and moral issues matter-of-factly because it is part of their business rather than making it into a fashion statement.

dhc@deborahhillcone.com

- NZ Herald

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