Marketing in a world of eco-intelligent consumers
Many marketers don’t feel obligated to know or otherwise take responsibility for the entire environmental and social story of the products they help develop, promote and sell. If they’re not careful, their customers may know the full story before they do, leaving them with a potential sales and reputation mess to clean up.
Daniel Goleman, author of the popular book “Emotional Intelligence,” explains the growing empowerment of eco- or social-minded shoppers in his new book “Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Impact of What We Buy Can Change Everything.” Goleman says consumers face an information gap that prevents them from easily knowing and comparing the personal, social and environmental health impacts of individual products they are considering for purchase. That gap, however, is closing, thanks to the emergence of new mobile and point-of-purchase information technology that makes it easier to access the accumulating ecological and social data and ratings of individual products.
The hope and the promise Goleman sees for these new forms of IT is “radical transparency.”
Ecological transparency becomes radical when its analysis encompasses the entire life cycle of a product and the full range of its consequences at every stage, and presents that information to a buyer in ways that demand little effort…Radical transparency means tracking every substantial impact of an item from manufacturing to disposal—not just its carbon footprint and other environmental costs but its biological risks, as well as its consequences for those who labored to make it—and summarizing those impacts for shoppers as they are deciding what to purchase.
Goleman credits the company GoodGuide for its pioneering efforts to equip the shopping public with “comprehensive and rigorous information at the point of purchase.” GoodGuide’s technology platform is still in beta form, but it shows potential for dramatically tilting the information playing field in the direction of the consumer. According to Goleman:
GoodGuide surfaces a product’s backstory. It can calculate the specific environmental impacts during manufacture, transport, use, and disposal. It can perform this calculation down to a single chemical among a batch of ingredients. On a macro level, it can rate how well a given company stacks up against others in its field on environmental, health, or social performance, as well as determine which brand or company has been getting better over time. GoodGuide can evaluate a company’s policies, its disclosure of key information on products, and ultimately a company’s impacts on consumers, workers, communities, and the environment.
And now GoodGuide offers a free iPhone app that provides mobile access to data on more than 70,000 products, according to its website. Goleman says GoodGuide has harnessed decades of industrial ecology research to provide precise metrics of various processes and products. Perhaps most significantly from a marketing standpoint, “GoodGuide cuts through greenwashing to the underlying facts,” Goleman says.
Although GoodGuide remains at beta stage, Goleman says the tool is nonetheless “a concrete example of how radical transparency might work” in the aisles of shoppers’ favorite stores. It may be a Microsoft or a Google that ultimately provides the transparency system that is most widely accepted. In any case, Goleman sounds confident it won’t be long before consumers have fast, convenient access to information that helps them align their purchases with their values at the place and time they’re ready to buy. I share his confidence.
For marketers, the takeaway is this: Your customers will eventually have all the credible facts they need to decide whether your company or product satisfies their health and sustainability values and how you compare to your competitors. At that point, you’ll have little choice but to ensure the stories you tell about your company and products square with the facts your customers will have at their fingertips. Do you know your products’ “environmental impacts during manufacture, transport, use, and disposal” down to a single chemical used in its ingredients? And how about the labor and trade conditions up and down your supply chain? It’s only a matter of time before not knowing or not caring to know that information will come back to bite the offending company either in lost sales or in damaged image.
The “radical transparency” Goleman describes won’t appear overnight and it may never be fully realized in the market nor embraced by the consumer, but the information trends are clearly working in favor of the customer, whether a business or an individual. One of the trend drivers is demographics. In an interview last month with public television’s Bill Moyers, Goleman said he believes the younger generations have the greatest motivation to preserve the world and their ever-expanding use of social media will accelerate the sharing of consumer knowledge. This, he says, will create a shift “that will make it not only feasible for companies, but actually essential for companies to do the right thing.”
Smart marketers will get ahead of the trend and make radical transparency their competitive advantage.
Update: As I was about to publish this post I came across Joel Makower’s review on June 17 of Goleman’s book. He isn’t nearly as optimistic as Goleman about the transformative potential of radical transparency, for either consumers or producers. “I can’t argue with the premise, but my 20 years of watching the green marketplace leaves me, well, unsold,” Makower writes. Goleman responds to Makower here. He says, “I don’t believe the last 20 years offer apt data points for projecting the next 20. It’s the future I’m talking about, not the past.” I’d suggest you read the book and decide for yourself.
Update: Daniel Goleman references my post in a piece he wrote for Harvard Business here.