Jan 232013

The past few weeks have seen an abundance of marketing campaigns exploiting sustainable ideas. Take for example the new commercial for Mazda’s CX-5 sport utility vehicle that uses the premier of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as a platform to talk about how supposedly “environmentally friendly” their new SUV is.

What’s disturbing about this trend is the way advertising is being used to support products that are not substantially more sustainable, and in many cases worse. Mazda’s vehicle is just a typical crossover SUV, which considering it gets a horrendous 26 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway, certainly does not warrant the “Truffula Tree seal of approval” that the commercial boasts.

According to Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones there are also “Lorax-approved disposable diapers. Because, you know, there’s nothing that says ‘we speak for the trees’ like the 3.6 million tons of nappies…that Americans throw away every year.” In fact, there are over 70 companies, including Whole Foods and the Pottery Barn, advertising with The Lorax and trying to exploit the environmental theme of the movie. Even IHOP got on board by promoting special dishes like Truffula Chip Pancakes because “Planting trees can make you hungry!” And nothing satisfies hunger better than a huge amount of sugar for breakfast. Yum.

Is it just me or does the Lorax look ashamed to be forced to promote this unhealthy food? (Screenshot from http://www.ihopandthelorax.com/)

Austria Solar’s annual report is another example worth mentioning. This year’s report has created a sensation because it is “the first annual report powered by the sun.” It is printed on specially-developed paper which keeps content invisible until sunlight hits it. While the idea is a clever marketing stunt and an admittedly fascinating concept, it is definitely not in line with their mission of promoting sustainable energy. The money spent on printing could have been much better spent building an extra solar panel or two, as the information could have easily been published solely as a PDF.

While there is an obvious disconnect between many campaigns and their company’s mission (when they’re not just flagrant greenwashing efforts), it’s not the case for all companies. Patagonia’s “Common Threads Initiative” campaign was both on-point and incredibly successful in targeting the brand’s customers. The idea of the campaign was to keep customers from buying what they didn’t need even if it meant them avoiding Patagonia products altogether or buying them used.

“Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”

They used their best-selling R2 Jacket, as an example. The jacket uses 135 liters of water in production, which is equivalent to the daily water needs of 45 people. Even the transport of the jacket from abroad to the company’s warehouse in Reno generates 20 pounds of CO2 emissions.

What makes Patagonia unique is the way it made a point to be honest with its consumers about how even environmentally conscious companies generate tremendous ecological footprints. However, the company hasn’t seen any damage done to its bottom line by promoting the re-use of Patagonia’s products. Rather the company has gained a new following of loyal customers who appreciate their efforts. “I’d say it already is and will continue to be really good for our business because it’s the right thing to do,” says company spokeswoman Jess Clayton. Too bad the Lorax didn’t don a second-hand Patagonia jacket instead of stuff his face full of pancakes.

Originally written by Nina Keehan in March 2012 for Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures Blog.

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