Getting Ready to Ride the Green Wave
With the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, it became clear to the entire world, especially the athletes who were competing in a heavily polluted environment, that China was far from green. In fact, the more environmental measures the country pledged, the more it seemed they were simply papering over their carbon-created cracks.
Similarly, the promotional products industry isn’t exactly green, and tentative steps in that direction have been motivated more by consumer demand than by a commitment to change. Companies are succeeding, but for the industry as a whole, getting to a higher level of understanding is a struggle. “There’s been the green rush of ’08, like the gold rush of ’49,” explained Rob Lederer, environmental consultant to and board member of Prime Line, Bridgeport, Conn. “But the industry is trying to figure this out as fast as everyone else is trying to figure it out. The industry has not been historically aware or concerned with these things, so there’s a lot of uninformed people who are trying to become informed as quickly as they can,” he added.
As a result, for distributors looking for suppliers with genuine green products and credentials, there’s the very real fear of “greenwashing” (promoting products as “green” when they don’t have an actual environmental benefit), uncertainty about the validity of these products and perhaps paying a higher premium for them. “It’s so complicated. Green is not another product. It’s an entirely new language,” asserted Lederer. “To understand what makes things green requires a whole new outlook on the world; it requires rethinking everything in how a business runs and how it does business; that is not something you do by simply saying, ‘I’m green.’”
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
Responding to current threats on the environment must start at a basic level. In looking at whether or not suppliers are practicing what they preach, it’s encouraging to see business models being revised in tandem with product lines. Prime Line’s green initiatives began as a matter of cost and risk reduction in terms of how products are decorated. “Everyone with an imprinting operation has to deal with chemicals and those chemicals have to be handled safely and responsibly. In many cases, they are not. So in 1994, we began to make sure that our factory operations were handling all chemicals, inks, thinners and so on responsibly,” described Lederer, who is now president of New York–based Management Resources, a consultancy that aids companies in becoming greener and more socially responsible.
Dri-Duck Traders also began its journey by going green within the company first, before recently coming to market with environmentally friendly products. “It started with an internal program which we named ‘Shades of Green,’” said Cathy Groves, vice president of marketing for the Overland Park, Kansas–based company. “We divided three levels of green initiatives into separate categories and then, as a company, our employees all volunteered to serve on various action committees,” she explained. Each group had measurable goals and objectives, which resulted in the creation of green programs in the office as well as in employees’ personal lives.
Dri-Duck’s catalogs and collateral materials are printed with soy inks on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and a corporate culture has emerged that stresses recycling, facilitates carpooling and encourages employees to work in the community on sustainable projects, receiving compensation time in return. “I am happy to say that we created our own model, which is also constantly evolving,” remarked Groves.
IDEAS START TO SWELL
PRESENTING GREEN PRODUCTS THAT CLIENTS CAN EASILY UNDERSTAND AND BECOME INTERESTED IN IS ONE CHALLENGE SUPPLIERS ARE CURRENTLY FACING. FOR AWHILE, EXTRA COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH GREEN OR ORGANIC ITEMS WERE A POINT OF CONTENTION. GROVES SAID SHE MOST FEARED DISTRIBUTORS WOULD BELIEVE THE PRICING FOR THESE PRODUCTS WOULD BE TOO HIGH, AND THUS, BYPASS THE CLASSIFICATION ALTOGETHER. THEREFORE, SHE SAID, THE GREEN CATEGORY REQUIRED VISIONARY AND INNOVATIVE SUPPLIERS IN ORDER TO KEEP A COMMITMENT TO THE ENVIRONMENT WHILE STILL MAINTAINING COMPETITIVE PRICING.
The HumphreyLine is one such supplier. In 2008, it developed two new green lines: biodegradable plastic and personal-care amenities housed in packaging made from post-consumer recycled content. “My view is that biodegradable plastic, which converts polyethelene into water and carbon dioxide, is a pretty attractive niche market because it really answers a lot of current controversy in the country—like cities banning plastic bags [as well as] landfill problems,” stated Mel Ellis, president of the Milwaukie, Oregon-based company. Plus, with heightened awareness of pollutants that can affect a consumer’s health, he believes the personal-care line has an attractive long-term market.
Prime Line is similarly innovating—its Web site features an “Eco-Responsible” promise and labeling system, which categorizes products according to their environmental attributes. The system includes a numbering scale that identifies product features such as “recycled,” “bioplastic,” “reduced material” and “reusable.”
“We’ve numbered [items] to provide an easy … reference system for distributors and end-users to read when they look at our products,” said Lederer. For example, a product with a one, a seven and an eight next to it means it contains recycled content, uses greener material substitution and was produced using alternative energy. “We’re not saying, ‘This is green, buy it!,’ and you don’t know what you’re buying, or why it matters. Instead, we’re telling you why it may matter to you, but you decide for yourself,” he explained.
On the soft goods side, Dri-Duck’s first entry into sustainable product offerings was organic cotton. Dri-Duck has a team that researches all types of products, trims, dyes and processes that are available in the marketplace, while another team is responsible for the design of new and innovative products that can be sold in the promotional market.
How can a distributor be certain his supplier is the “real deal” with regard to environmental strictures? “The most important thing is to make sure that the proper certifications are in place and that they are traceable,” answered Groves, who said that claims can be made, but the distributor must ask to see the certificates to ensure “truth in labeling” is being practiced.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is not just to ask if they are labeling/representing their products correctly, it is imperative to see documents,” she declared. As part of its green image and practice, Dri-Duck belongs to the Organic Exchange, Organic Trade Association and Bridging the Gap (a local sustainability agency)—and the company is also considering joining 1% For the Planet or a similar program in which Dri-Duck can choose where profit contributions should be channeled.
The Eco-Responsible program helped Prime Line get out in front of the greenwashing fears distributors might have. “That was our explicit intention. It’s been so well received because it’s so detailed and explicit. There’s going to be a lot of noise out there, a lot of claims, and we want to stand out,” stated Lederer.
THE BREAKING POINT
For the sake of the earth, environmental stewardship within a company is a promising indicator that a values shift is beginning to occur in our country. But, it’s only half the battle. Strictly speaking from a profits standpoint, free enterprise demands money be made. No matter how green these programs and the products associated with them are, the market has to respond with more than polite interest. “We were looking for a way to bring green plastics to the promotional marketplace because we perceived an end-buyer would want to associate their brand with environmentally conscious solutions, but it was a perceived market, not an actual market,” asserted Ellis, who said it generally takes one to two years for new products to gather steam. “Our business plan does not expect a strong initial demand for these products. … Like most things in this market, it takes some time for new ideas and new products to get much traction financially,” Ellis added.
However, he’s comfortable with the time frame, because there is really no doubt at this point that, like in other industries, the future of promotional products is green. “I believe it will change a lot in the next couple of years. The green phenomenon is very real,” Ellis said. He pointed to the organic grocery marketplace and the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for organic products versus conventional ones—and added that consumers are simply ahead of distributors, at present.
Groves agreed. “As distributors become more aware and less intimidated by the products, there will be a natural growth pattern. All of the end-user clients are very aware of these environmental and social issues—and these companies are passionate and responsible. They will all be demanding
environmentally conscious products in time,” she predicted.
Ultimately, it’s about a collective realization that life on this planet is in trouble if we continue living, working and traveling the way many still do. Soon green—product, lifestyle, philosophy—will no longer be an option, but a necessity. Lederer concluded, “We recognized that the environment, and the world we live in needs to be treated better. It’s telling us all the time to treat it better, and people around the world are really starting to wake up and that is leading to a shift
in demand.” ,