More on the Color of Sustainability

by | Feb 20, 2009

Adam Werbach, Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, might be right. In a previous EL story, he wrote, “It is essential to move beyond green as the sole signifier of sustainability. History and the public are fatigued by “green” and already rejecting it outright.”

Damn straight. Green has been doing a lot of work lately. Green is over-stretched and tired. We’ve asked much of this color and it is worn and threadbare.

In 2007, at the LOHAS conference, I gave a presentation called “LOHAS, Language and the Mainstream: Odd Narrative of Green.”  In it, I told a room full of green entrepreneurs that we were on the cusp of a branding problem for the environmental business movement.  The problem was the color green.  I referenced several instances of green becoming pop-culture property, rather than a movement. Green, I claimed, had “jumped the shark” like Fonzerelli.

Everything was “going” Green (not being – mind you – going). Everyone was excited. There was energy in the room. We were changing things. People were talking about Wal-Mart’s transformative power to bring “Green to main street USA.” Amazing. Experts showed punchy data about shifting consumer patterns to deeper and deeper shades of Green. And there was money on the table, VCs and Angels were coming down from on high, looking around for deals. Smart, passionate people were talking about a dream alignment of market and mission.

I was skeptical.  So I warned the audience that as soon as we were successful in mainstreaming Green, it would be ubiquitous. And, as soon as Green was ubiquitous, we would all loose our primary business advantage – our unique selling proposition of being green.

So, when Adam writes that we need to move beyond Green, he is right. But moving it to Blue is only a temporary fix – a branding and design project, an opportunity to differentiate it for a while; an academic exercise for branding geeks like me.

The beneficial business movement does need to shake free of Green – yes.  Shaking into a new color is one possible strategy. But dropping the concept of color altogether and making sustainability ubiquitous – therefore invisible – might be even cooler.

I contend that the sustainable business movement will not be solved through brand strategy.

Adam is right in other ways too – movements are marked by colors.  But marketers do not brand the movement.  They brand the things they move.  I argue that while movement colors were perhaps aesthetic decisions, they did not try to redefine mid-stream.

Maybe Blue is not the new Green, but Blue is a new thing altogether. Let’s instead move beyond color altogether and do what is right.  I could get behind that in a heartbeat.

We could instead look to Ecopedegogy for guidance. Ecopedegogy serves the purpose to stimulate critical and negative discourse about sustainability. But its aim is to realize the planetary peace, happiness, justice, and beauty that would be manifested by sustainable social and cultural relations between the peoples of the Earth.  Ecopedegogy extends beyond the limiting eco prefix, and embraces all elements of sustainability and sacrifices none.  It serves as a gadfly for the current movement.  A challenge to push the movement further.

Movements are hegemonic forces of swelling ground and visceral rally cries and the color assumes the cause (not the other way). And they can all be derailed through propaganda.  So, Ok, I give, I give.  Make it Blue.  I really don’t care what color it is.  But as long as it is painted veneer, it can be counterfeited.  Get ready for a new trend of bluewashing.

Adam and I are on the same page, we both want the same thing: a great big blue, green and brown planet that is healthy for all inhabitants for eternity. We’re also, I think, making the same argument: for this to be a sustainable place, business has to fundamentally change, not just for profit, but because it should.  Business needs to move beyond eco-sustainability and start protecting all living things, cultures, histories and glorious ideas.

Adam once told me, “don’t be wrong so much.” I’m trying. Really, I am.

But what if it wasn’t a color at all? What if it wasn’t a choice between Blue or Green?  What if it was a movement based on a concept?

Maybe, just maybe, “Less” is the new “Green.”

John Rooks is the President/Founder of The SOAP Group (Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners) – a communications advocacy company developing sustainability messaging and branding for corporations, start-ups, non-profits, traditional ad agencies and all the crevices in between.

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