TORONTO, April 4, 2011 – A colleague who will be delivering an important speech on corporate green behaviour asked some of his fellow Ketchum PR folks from around the world for their views on the state of green communication. The early responses are gloomy. Skepticism and cynicism abound, the result of too much hype, too many bandwagon-jumping green washers, and too little clarity about what is really being accomplished. People can be motivated to act on lofty ambitions but in the absence of clear, concrete results they will remain motivated by self-interest. That’s a failure of communication, complicit with a failure of corporations and the green movement.
This green fatigue seems most evident as relates to carbon emissions. Here’s where corporate leaders, marketers and corporate communicators are really the green-washing culprits. Everyone claims to be doing something but mostly it’s just window dressing. There is also increasing confusion over whether climate change is man-made or a naturally occuring phenomenon. Environmentalists have harmed their own cause here with some questionable behaviour and hype that lacks credibility. Then they blame it on an enormous corporate conspiracy, but the thing about conspiracy theories is that they simply lack credibility. The overwhelming majority of business people are not fundamentally evil. Certainly some make short-sighted or ill-informed decisions, but when the environmental movement tries to paint global business leadership as a clone army of Cruella De Ville.
There has also been controversy about determining exactly what is the right thing to do. Carbon credits are mysterious and uncertified. Very few know exactly what the credits are, what they do, and how they trade. As a result, they have been criticized in some circles. (Al Gore can claim his brightly lit mansion is green. For most people, that just doesn’t scan.)
There have been controversies over some tools to facilitate energy savings. In Toronto, a program to install smart meters in every home has been expensive and has generated very little energy savings. Time-of-use pricing has not been effectively rolled out. In Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, carbon emissions were used to promote energy conservation and to take some vilified coal-fired power plants out of service. But the real reason behind the program was to reduce energy demand. When the recession came along, energy demand fell and the problem was solved. Greenhouse gas reduction became a lower priority.
Add to this mix the political football that is energy pricing. No one wants to pay the true cost of energy. Businesses lobby against it, citizens lobby against it, media grabs onto it any time the cost of energy rises. With an election on the horizon in Ontario, especially with the memory of recession still fresh, politicians don’t want to be seen to be giving money to big business. It is simply politically unacceptable. Ultimately, people vote on pocket-book issues. If something is going to cost them more they are not going to sign up for it.
In Canada, Ketchum works with the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association to promote those technologies, but they are at the bottom of the list in terms of government priorities. Ontario recently issued its budget for 2011/12. In the budget document there was one mention of alternative energy (solar and wind power). Not a single mention of hydrogen and hydrogen technologies, despite the fact that Canada is a world leader in this field. It would make a lot of sense to promote this industry as a long-term strategy. But politicians aren’t elected on long-term strategies.
In fact, Ministry of Energy expenditures were reduced from $584.5 million in 2010-11 to 331.7 million in 2011-12 — a staggering 76 per cent reduction! That’s a strong signal of not only the government’s priorities but also its perception of everyone else’s priorities.
Another rason for the green fatigue is that people and companies have taken care of the relatively easy things to do. Every organization has looked at its own operations and done the simple things, like double-sided printing and recycling programs etc. We face the same issue in our own office. We had a very effective environmental committee, which was creative in promoting recycling and energy savings. But when you’re in an office tower there are only so many things you can do.
Because green energy/conservation initiatives are losing traction, we have been counseling clients to focus on cost and on related health issues. People might not care about GHG but particulate matter in the air kills thousands of people a year in Toronto, and causes man more illnesses. Besides the immediate impact, that also places additional strain on the health care system.
Some companies look at other green initiatives. The Royal Bank of Canada has a great water campaign. It has a $50-million fund to support water projects around the world. But that is literally a drop in the bucket. RBC supports a handful of mostly community projects every year. It’s a good thing to do but has a tiny actual impact. And the program is lost in most of the bank’s other marketing initiatives. It was a major sponsor of the Olympics last year and for the year running up to it. If you surveyed the Canadian public on RBC’s sponsorships, most would remember the Olympics and the Olympic Torch Relay. Many would also likely know that RBC has rescued the Canadian Open. No criticism intended of RBC. These are great Canadian programs and RBC deserves its perennial role as one of Canada’s most respected companies. But it’s blue water campaign is just a tiny blip.
I cannot think of a major company that stands out in my mind as a true green leader. There are many small companies that do. But for the big companies, it’s mostly window dressing and people are increasingly cynical about that.
We have been recommending a move to discussing the health impacts of pollution. They are real and we believe something that more people can relate to than the idea of carbon emissions.
Communication needs a strong victory in this area. Ketchum did some work with one important environmental group to write some case studies of its corporate partners that have embraced greening their operations and their supply chain. They have some great success stories. But it always comes down to making the business operate smarter and more efficiently. The green aspect is a nice-to-have, but for the business audience it’s the cost savings and process improvements are what really resonate.
Perhaps a smarter approach is IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign (another Ketchum client). We do a lot of work with that here in Canada. It’s about making all of our systems and infrastructure work smarter and more effectively, whether it’s smart grid, health care, education, water systems etc. etc.
People need to see what they are working toward. They have already accepted that climate change is a reality but if there is a connection between GHG and climate change, it’s not a visceral one that motivates people to act. People react to self-interest. Tell them we can cut their energy costs if we have a smart grid and they’ll support it. But then you have to follow through. If you get everyone washing their dishes in the middle of the night and they still see their energy bill go up, and all you do is breed cynicism.
As communicators, we need to remember what will motivate and engage people, and bring the story back to self-interest. Sure, in a focus group people will tell you they plan to turn down the air conditioner so that some foreign land doesn’t lose its coast line. But then the mercury hits 30 celsius and people opt for immediate comfort rather than some vague idea that they may be doing good. The more abstract the idea, the less engaged. The more concrete the idea, the more engaged.
As communicators, we need to be concrete. We need to tell real, verifiable stories that engage people where they live. That is how behaviours will be influenced.