Parse The Greens, Pass The Spectacle

by | Jun 29, 2008

Comments on the Language of Marketing Sustainability.

In today’s culture of over-parsed lexicon, where we argue the meaning of “is,” where “organic” needs governmental defining, and where sound bytes become context for selecting political hope, it is no surprise that the language of so-called “green marketing” can be looked at as not much more than spectacle.

All language provides opportunity for interpretation. That’s its job. And, within the spectacle of going but never becoming green, substance matters not. In the spectacle, being seen eating an organic carrot is more important than actually eating an organic carrot. Looking green is better than being green. Quoting McKibben is more important than reading him. Most green marketing today a skipping stone.

But, ok, indeed, all language is spectacle–it is all simply a presentation of the thing and not the thing itself. But it’s all we have, so we are stuck using it to define and position our greenness to a possibly mythic “green consumer”; a consumer who aspires to do more environmentally, has deeper pockets than most, and wants to help shop our way out of the climate crisis (the belief in this creature may be founded in the same fervor reserved for Yeti and Mermaids).

But words mean something…eventually. Usually they mean more once they have historical context. But in the heat of language development the true meaning is secondary to the understood meaning. Politically and racially charged words meant very little at their discovery–it wasn’t until the distance came and we could look back at the context to see and realize their meaning.

So what of this Green Language? What of the eco-anything, the anything-friendly, the contrived conjunctions of earth-this and enviro-that; inventing new words with instant meaning?  What of the new business rhetoric of the “Good for Business. Good for the Planet,” “Live Green Make Green,” and “Green is the new Black”? Is that all part of the spectacle justifying our propensity for promoting consumption as a cure for cancer, climate or other crises?

Yes, it is.

We are inventing the language that will define us later. Today, “green” is used by business, but not by consumers. A recent study shows that given a choice between other terms, only 18% of American’s would call themselves “green.” That’s because business loves a shortcut, a brand boiled down to a color. Business loves a package to be sold. But people, as a stakeholder group, are more complex and hold on to the meaning of “green” that comes from the first environmental movement. It is a personally charged word, no mater how much marketers try to water it down.  Already–if Saatchi S has their way, on behalf of their client Wal-Mart, I assume-Green is being re-branded as Blue.

It is all spectacle.

The dominant call-and-response business advice, found on business blogs and in the PowerPoint decks of sustainability consultants, in “how to market your sustainability messages” and “tips to avoid greenwashing” includes the well-intended suggestion to Be Specific. (Hint and final answer: be so honest it hurts.)

But advertising (old-school, mass media) seeks to avoid specificity in order to cast the widest net. (It’s why we market the entire idea with only a color.) Advertising prefers emotion-its common trope-to inspire purchase, green or otherwise. It doesn’t do specificity very well.  There are other communication methods built for that objective.

So, of course, the question becomes: How far will spectacle get us?

Businesses need to end with communication strategies, not begin with them. Then, once Green is cultural rather than representational, it will last.  Forever.

John Rooks is President/Founder of Dwell Creative.

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