by Kathryn Hautanen
As a person new to the sustainability conversation, it is somewhat difficult for me to understand the dialogue. Terms like green, sustainable, organic and greenwashing are being tossed around as if everyone is in agreement as to what these terms mean.
Last year I was at the West Coast Green Conference in San Francisco especially to see Michelle Kaufmann’s mkLotus™ house. As I was leaving, a guy in a gorilla suit engaged me in a conversation and he was very animated by PG&E’s “greenwashing.” He was clearly upset and all I could think was – what is “greenwashing” and is it good or bad? The only thing that was coming to mind was Tom Sawyer and the whitewashing of a fence – not exactly evil. He was frustrated that I wasn’t hearing him and getting outraged at PG&E, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t understand him.
I am a very literal person, and I get obsessed with knowing “official” definitions. I was recently told about a nifty sustainability dictionary and I am proud to say I know now an “official” definition of greenwashing. But to me there is something fundamentally wrong when I need to look up words to understand a serious message that is being communicated. If I can’t understand the call to action – don’t be surprised when I do nothing.
Thinking back to my conversation with the gorilla, it seems that the lack of a common language is hampering the environmental movement. Some terms are new and some are new meanings put on old words (e.g. green) – room abounds for confusion. In addition, these nebulous terms are vulnerable to being exploited by the marketing arms of environmentally destructive companies.
Those immersed in the sustainability conversation do not seem to be aware of how confusing it is to an outsider. People are searching for a way to do the right thing, but it is unclear what that is. The sustainability/green movement needs to come up with a way to educate the population so that they can make informed decisions.
While gorilla/guerilla marketing can sometimes be effective in order to get real traction and real results, the movement is in dire need of some old-fashioned, solid and centralized marketing. Who owns this? How do we get started?
KATHRYN HAUTANEN is a student in the pioneering MBA Program in Design Strategy at CCA. She holds advanced degrees engineering from MIT and the University of Wisconsin -Madison. She currently works in Marketing Communications for a Silicon Valley software firm.