As more companies are making a case for profits with more sustainable product offerings, who is rising to the forefront? And should we be applauding those going beyond compliance, while at the same time be concerned with their motives?
Have you heard?
In a heavily circulated press release last fall, research done by TDG showed that consumers considered Apple to be the most environmentally friendly consumer technology brand, while a study released last year by the Geneva based firm Covalence, which covers the ethical reputation of companies, lists HP and Dell number one and three respectively in the “best ethical quote score” category, whereas Apple doesn’t even fall in the top ten.
Around the same time Apple announced the release of their “greenest” laptops ever, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen how their latest ad campaign has centered around these assertions ever since.
So — is this true? In January of this year, Greenpeace released their latest ‘Guide to Greener Electronics‘ report ranking Apple below both Dell and HP (Greenpeace says that Apple “refused” to participate) and in February the As You Sow Foundation criticized Apple for its lack of public commitment to greenhouse gas reductions, and questioned Apple’s transparency, claiming that of the big four IT companies, Apple has disclosed the least.
Well, if your head isn’t spinning yet, this past week, a GreenFactor study released by Strategic Oxygen and Cohn & Wolfe, revealed Dell to be the number one green technology brand. Confusing? Yes, and you’re not alone. Consumer spending is down, and the markets are hemorrhaging, yet new reports and branding campaigns touting sustainability and corporate social responsibility seem to still be a favorite flavor for advertising campaigns and appear to pop up around us daily.
Without question, these reports are important and necessary in terms or transparency and building credibility. Beyond those working in corporate sustainability, does the consumer, or the companies themselves, even care? The data appears to be an unequivocal yes. A survey done by Havas last year showed 79 percent of consumers questioned would rather purchase from a company that is concerned with reducing their environmental impact, and 89 percent said they would purchase more green products within the next year.
What about the companies?
Dell appears is making a strong commitment both with their environmental strategy, and in the way they communicate it. They not only provide their policies and programs in a unique site titled “Dell Earth,” they are working toward creating a global community through their “ReGeneration” campaign which encourages dialogue between company and customer.
Do they care about all of these reports? Well, a recent visit to the ReGeneration home page featured the aforementioned GreenFactor study front and center, and Dell also publicly challenged Apple’s amount of transparency, the “greenest ever” laptop campaign’s accuracy and urged them to join an open debate on the issue.
So why do some branding initiatives resonate with consumers better than others?
If Dell focuses their gateway to the consumer by creating an online community encouraging the exchange of ideas, and Apple chooses to provide a more narrow view on policies and milestones, why does perception lean in Apple’s favor when many reports say otherwise, and Dell is often regarded as the industry leader? Perhaps the power and simplicity of the Apple brand successfully effects perception and affords them an advantage with regard to sustainability, but their more closed off approach could be perceived as a bit out of touch with current social trends.
As the consumer landscape transitions from web 2.0 and beyond, the exchange of information between the consumer and the manufacturer becomes more crucial, is vital for the brand, and influences the transparency a company exhibits in a profound way. The consumer environment is becoming more interactive by the day, and today’s customer is engaged.
Whether or not it is economic or social forces that influence companies to move beyond the narrow lens of regulatory compliance, it is clear that turning customers into advocates for a product is becoming increasingly competitive; and in terms of environmental sustainability, how a company communicates their policies, strategies and their achievements will prove just as critical to the bottom line.
Brian Thurston is a sustainability consultant working on research, strategy and policy development. Brian is interested in building awareness and unique relationships within and between corporate, government, and NGO partners. He holds a BA in Literature from University of Southern California, and a MS in Environmental Policy from The Johns Hopkins University.