Jan 222013

I had the great opportunity to join a working group on sustainable consumption at the University of Minnesota this past week. There I joined academic, NGO and corporate sustainability leaders to discuss how we can shift consumption patterns to being more sustainable (which not surprisingly meant consuming less to some of us, while to others it seemed to mean consuming more efficiently).

While there, I tried to use my 8 minutes of presentation time to encourage the corporate leaders in the room to use their significant power to lobby and market for products and initiatives that will both improve their bottom line in the long-term and simultaneously usher forth a culture of sustainability.

One example I pointed to: Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. This company is suing other natural cosmetics and soap companies because the latter are calling their products organic but often still include toxic chemicals. This is a perfect case of a company using its financial resources in a way that if it succeeds will not only strengthen its market position, but will ratchet up the organic soap market and most likely force its competitors to actually use organic ingredients (or at least stop marketing their products as such). Either scenario will be good for both consumers and Dr. Bronner’s bottom line.

After describing that example, I offered a similar win-win proposal that could be applied by General Mills as there was a representative of the company at the meeting. Specifically: what if General Mills used its market power to introduce “Veggie Helper” to go along with its other Helper products (Hamburger Helper, Tuna Helper, etc.).


Through advertising and market visibility, these meat helpers normalize the idea of putting meat at the center of a meal and encourage people to eat hamburger and tuna—neither of which are sustainable foods. So what if General Mills started marketing Veggie Helper to make it natural and easy to eat a vegetable-centric meal? Over time, this market shift could both help deal with America’s obesity epidemic and lower America’s ecological footprint. (Globally, livestock production contributes 18% of greenhouse gases, nitrogen runoff, and many other social and environmental problems.)

Most importantly, I tried to explain that this would be beneficial for General Mill’s long-term profitability. The market—whether we accept it or remain in denial—is going to shift increasingly to mostly vegetable and grain-based as another 2 billion people populate the planet, more people become consumers, own pets (which eat lots of grain and meat themselves), and more entrepreneurs, corporations, and governments start displacing food crops with lucrative biofuel crops. Eventually grain prices will spike again, and with them so will meat prices. Will people still buy Hamburger Helper when Hamburger costs 18 bucks a pound?

General Mills seems to get that its business depends on a healthy Mother Nature to thrive—and is doing some important things to improve water efficiency of its operations for instance. But the idea of driving consumer demand in new directions even if it is less profitable in the short-run appears to be an anathema to most corporations, including General Mills it seems. So it was good to hear a wonderful case study the second day of the workshop that might offer an important lesson to General Mills and other businesses: that of Pūr Water Purification packets.

pur-packetGreg Allgood of Procter & Gamble (maker of the Pūr brand) described how P&G designed a new product for sale in developing countries that could purify unsafe water 10 liters at a time, using iron sulfate to bind with sediments and bleach to kill pathogens. The goal, of course, was to sell it at a profit. But unfortunately, it wasn’t profitable. The good news, Greg explained, was that instead of pulling the product completely, as executives at P&G first thought to do, they made it into a “non-profit” business, selling the packets at cost. Over several years, these 3.5 cent packets have had a great number of benefits, helping to purifying 2 billion liters of water, which according to Greg has saved 10,000 lives and averted 79 million days of diarrhea.

What Greg dwelt on less was the pure marketing genius of this effort. He showed a quick video of all the different leaders and celebrities praising P&G for this product, from Bill Clinton to Queen Latifah. So, for almost no cost, P&G is getting major marketing benefits and forging new partnerships with NGOs and international agencies that help green the company’s image. The company even uses this product to green the image of other P&G products, like a fragrance it sells in Europe, which if you buy P&G will donate 10 liters of clean water to a community in need(translation: 3.5 cents). Is that cheap greenwashing or what?!

But even better is that the Pūr packets are gateway products to selling other P&G consumer products. The same micro-entrepreneurs selling Pūr packets are selling P&G’s other products, like Pampers and Always. As you can imagine these are exactly what low-income individuals need in developing countries with no real waste disposal systems—completely non-recyclable disposable products!

Best of all, this is such a “feel good” project that even writing this, I feel uncomfortable. Here I am criticizing an effort to give people access to clean, safe drinking water. Am I so anti-corporation that I criticize even this? No, it’s just that this is such an insidiously clever effort by P&G to create markets for its products. Would P&G do this if all the marketing and cross-selling opportunities weren’t there? If they truly wanted to help shouldn’t they be reducing the air and water pollution their industrial facilities produce (the stuff that ironically ends up eventually contaminating someone’s water supply somewhere). Or if not that, they could provide truly sustainable water treatment technologies to communities—ones that can be used for years, like a ceramic filter instead of disposable packets of bleach (which according to Greg were at a per-unit cost one of the most expensive purification tools). Indeed, ceramic filters, unlike expensive single-use packets, would empower communities to purify their own water resources, instead of converting them into consumers and making them dependent on buying multinational corporations’ products to lead a healthy life. But of course, providing ceramic water filters or teaching communities how to use the sun’s UV rays to purify water doesn’t sell product or create an easy space to regularly sell people other P&G products. (An aside: for a wonderfully concise and practical description of free water treatment tools read the Hesperian Foundation’s A Community Guide to Environmental Health, specifically pages 92-99 of chapter 6—which you can download here.)

So, while I could go on about P&G’s diabolical marketing genius all day, what’s the point? I might as well complain about them selling diapers or Sunny D—both of which also need to go away but won’t any time soon. But complaining isn’t going to change anything. Instead let’s see if we can learn something from the company’s marketing prowess, and channel it into ways that actually retool the consumer socio-economic system so that it won’t destroy itself.

Returning to my Veggie Helper proposal, what if General Mills follows P&G’s lead and makes Veggie Helper a non-profit business product? Lower the goal so that the company simply breaks even and then uses it as a marketing tool to approach new potential allies. Perhaps not groups as radical as PETA but some of the middle-of-the road environmental groups, animal welfare groups and anti-obesity groups. How about Michelle Obama’s new anti-obesity task force? (I can see the ads already: “First Lady Obama just looooves Veggie Helper.”)

Then add to that all the cross-selling opportunities: like a recipe on the box of Veggie Helper that includes various “Green Giant” vegetables (another General Mills product) and joint coupon deals for these two product lines. Between stimulating sales of other General Mills products and the marketing value of partnerships, I bet that this would quickly prove quite lucrative for the company even without making huge direct revenues (just like Pūr packets did for P&G). And most importantly, it would lower meat consumption, obesity rates, and help insulate the company for the future when tuna is a luxury of the rich and hamburger is once again eaten only on special occasions. After all, if Mother Nature breaks down, General Mills won’t have a business (unless they take the Soylent Green route). P&G, on the other hand, will probably see Pūr packet sales skyrocket. Cha-ching!

This post was originally written by Erik Assadourian for the Transforming Cultures blog in May 2010.

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