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Businesses find the green in going green

Earth Day used as marketing tool by many companies

POSTED: May 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED The Times/

Ana Sierra straightens up a display of T-shirts made out of recycled bottles at the Oakwood Wal-Mart, one of the "green" products that Wal-Mart sells.

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Earth Day began as a grassroots movement, but these days it's become a marketing opportunity.

On April 22, 1970, about 20 million Americans turned out for demonstrations against environmental pollution. Modeled after the "teach-ins" against the Vietnam War, these protests brought about widespread awareness of ecological issues, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act.

Alto resident Adele Kushner remembers that first Earth Day as a personal awakening. "I was living in Atlanta at the time. I wasn't an environmentalist. I was busy working and raising my children," she said.

"But there was a celebration in a little downtown park near Five Points, just small groups with card tables set up. It was wonderful. And that's when I started getting educated."

Earth Day has been held every April 22 since then, and for the first three decades, it remained a low-key event. Then companies began to realize there was money to be made in being green.

Now, for a month or so prior to Earth Day, media outlets such as The Times are inundated with press releases about products that are supposed to be good for the environment. The maker of Segway scooters is touting its "alternative green transportation." Hush Puppies is hawking its Harmony collection of shoes made with sustainable materials.

Some companies are taking it a step further. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has proclaimed April as "Earth Month" and launched a campaign to promote more than 50 eco-friendly products. A flyer that ran in local newspapers recently featured T-shirts made from recycled Coke bottles, organic foods, energy-saving home accessories and natural cleaning products.

Wal-Mart is also selling clothing made from "transitional" cotton, which comes from fields that are in the process of converting to organic but are not yet certified. There's an assortment of T-shirts featuring sarcastic Earth Day slogans such as "Save Trees: Eliminate Homework" and "Save Energy: Don't Talk To Me."

Some people are questioning whether the true meaning of Earth Day has been lost. "I don't know if there's a cynical marketing ploy going on," said Peter Gordon, education director at Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville.

But whether or not people observe Earth Day, he believes the public has become much more interested in environmental issues. "Certain things are changing, big time," Gordon said. "You can go into any grocery store and see the large amount of organic products being sold. They wouldn't be stocking it if people weren't buying it."

In some ways, it's become fashionable to be "green," and many companies are incorporating environmental ethics into their advertising, hoping consumers will form a more favorable opinion of their business.

But not everyone is falling for it. Kushner said people need to be on the alert for "greenwashing," a tactic by which industries with less-than-stellar environmental credentials try to rebrand themselves as Earth-friendly.

But thanks to the Internet, it's often possible to research a company's environmental record and find out if their claims are valid. "I'm all for being skeptical and looking at who's behind the curtain," Kushner said.

Similarly, it's up to the consumer to decide whether buying a particular product is really going to help the environment. "People just need to do their homework," said Dianne Bennett, manager of Enviro Expo USA, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that helps companies "go green."

But even if a product seems genuinely eco-friendly, consumers face tough choices in today's economy.
"Most things that claim to be green are more expensive," Bennett said. "It's going to be a harder sell if it costs more."

She gives Wal-Mart credit for trying to make green products affordable for everyone. "I think (other) retailers are going to have to follow suit if Wal-Mart does it," she said.

But while cheap prices can entice shoppers to try something new, they won't switch brands if green products can't match the traditional ones for quality. "If a green cleaner doesn't work, people are not going to keep buying it," Bennett said.

Also, consumers don't like to feel as though they're making sacrifices. When compact fluorescent light bulbs first came on the market, people complained about the way the bulbs looked and the harsh tone of the light. Manufacturers reacted by developing ones that mimic the qualities of incandescent bulbs.

"I think consumers are expressing their preferences, and the market is responding to changes in behavior," Gordon said.

Recent TV programs such as the National Geographic Channel's "Human Footprint" have made viewers acutely aware of the resources they consume and the waste they generate. Gordon said more than ever before, people are motivated to make lifestyle changes,

"I don't know whether it's a fad or not, or how long-term the impact will be," he said. "Things do ebb and flow in people's consciences. But this seems different. The drought, the cost of fuel, and climate change are three big things that are going on right now and are influencing how people think."

Bennett said the younger generation, growing up in an era of diminishing resources, will have a more enlightened mindset than their parents.

"The kids coming up now are the ones who are going to live it," she said.

Bennett is organizing Green Day Fest, a free event scheduled for 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 27 at Underground Atlanta. It will feature live music, arts and crafts, and local businesses that offer eco-friendly products.

Bennett said the aim is not to sell things, but to help people understand what it means to be green.
"It's a family oriented, educational event," she said.

In that aspect, she aims to re-create some of the spirit of the original Earth Day celebrations.
But some would argue that setting aside a single day for environmentalism implies that people don't have to think about the issue the other 364 days of the year. Kushner said Earth Day is not meaningful unless it spurs people to make permanent lifestyle changes.

"I'm not planning to do anything for Earth Day," she said. "I've been living it for a long time."



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