What’s Love Got to Do With Doing Business?

Most of us don’t think of love as being an important aspect of business. Sustainable change agent Giles Hutchins explains why it is, and how to help your company tap into the power of love.

Giles Hutchins, author, The Nature of BusinessA while back I stumbled across a video on YouTube that struck me as very provocative and very, very important. The video was entitled The Future of Business, and in it the man on the screen mentioned the importance in business of – of all things – love.

When most of us think about business, love is just about the last thing that comes to mind. However, this man was talking about love as something very primary in the shift to a sustainable future, which includes the way we do business.

“This man” was Giles Hutchins, a business change agent who has worked in business for nearly 20 years, formally as management consultant for KPMG and then as global director of sustainability for Atos International. Giles specializes in taking inspiration from nature and applying it to sustainable business transformation. By that he means not just trading conventional technologies for ones that are less destructive, but a true transformation to a new paradigm, one that is inspired by and in harmony with nature.

Giles is also the author of The Nature of Business: Redesign for Resilience, an excellent book which explores how the increasingly unpredictable, interconnected and uncertain nature of business in modern society calls for a more emergent, dynamic approach to organizations and leadership.

Giles was kind enough to agree to speak with me via Skype earlier this month to further explain the importance of love in business.

(You can listen to the full interview here: Interview with Giles Hutchins on love in business)

Giles maintains that the biggest problems we face as a society today cannot be solved through technology alone, because they are not a product of technology.  Rather, he attributes the root cause of our environmental crisis to an “inherent anti-life approach,” which, he says, stems from an illusion of separation.

“We tend to see ourselves as separate from each other and from the world around us. And the way in which we manage our businesses today… is very much rooted in this sense of separation of self from nature.

Snakes and Vultures watercolor painting in progress

“(But) if we look at how reality really works, how nature operates, how organisms live, how each of us thrive and survive in the world, we actually realize that nothing, absolutely nothing is completely separate from anything else.

“And so it’s important, I think, to come with that (more natural kind of) thinking if we’re then going to start dealing with some of these profound challenges that we face today, otherwise we add to the illusion of separation which causes further downstream ramifications… We need to get to the root cause of the challenges that are now facing us…

“Love as deep attunement of our ego self, with our true self; of our conscious mind, with our unconscious imaginable presence; of our soul with the World Soul; of our rational mind with intuitive heart. Love is awakening to the divine presence flowing through every action, every moment, every relationship, every interaction that we undertake.

“So it’s a foundation, an all-pervasive presence flowing through everything, which is fundamental for us to tune into. We’ve lost that deeper sense of Love; re-embodying and re-member that Love helps us see beyond the illusion of separation.”

Illustration: Hands with glowing heart

While love is an abstract concept, its effect is real and very tangible. However, it’s not something that can be mandated into a company’s DNA. Rather, it flows out from individuals within an organization.

“There are many organizations that perhaps people wouldn’t think of (being based on love), which have people in them that are inspired by love, and perhaps those people may only be inspired by love for just 10 or 15 minutes of their day…

“…there are examples of organizations that have a purpose-driven, value-based organization…but I think it’s important to realize that we all are individuals working in organizations and perhaps through our lives we sometimes have moments when we are “in love,” when we’re flowing, we’re deeply attuned, focused on the activity, loving the activity that we’re doing, and therefore what we’re doing is laced with love. (That is what I mean by being) in love, that we are deeply resonating with what we’re doing.

“For instance I could talk to people in a call center and you know, many of them may be disenchanted with what they’re doing, just doing it purely to meet the bills and to pay off debts, yet you can come across someone who clearly is motivated and enjoying what they’re doing, and have a conversation which is quite different – a love-based sharing – and in that moment inspired by love.

“Everything has interrelationships, and our environment clearly has a massive impact of how we are and how we feel.

“And so if you have a culture that’s very much ‘anti-life’ (highly competitive and carcinogenic) that rubs off on us, it’s very difficult for us to then be inspired by love.

“Yet we create an environment through our own interactions which then contributes to a wider environment which might then inspire team members, which may then go on to inspire other teams in the organization, which then either helps that business unit or the wider culture. That’s a bottom-up approach.

“Vice versa you can have a top-down approach where you have purpose-driven leaders creating space for an environment based on love, recognizing that people are more motivated and more creative if they’re actually coming from love; recognizing the importance of that for organizations in these challenging times.

“And of course it’s a mixture of both. It’s neither top-down nor bottom. Both of those are kind of old ways of looking at things.  We affect the change through the actions and interactions that we do. There are catalysts like leadership and creating a culture that help foster a loving environment.

“Having worked at different levels in organizations and consulted for a variety of different people from people on the shop floor right through to global CEOs, (I’d say that) it often seems everybody has the same challenges and barriers to love.

“Take someone on the shop floor who’s saying, ‘Well yes, but what can I do to change the organization? Well it’s not first-and-foremost about ‘changing the organization’ or ‘the world’, but rather changing what you are doing and how you are being. That person has similar challenges, barriers and fears as a global CEO would have in that regard. And of course both of them have just the same amount of opportunity if they choose. So part of it is an attitude. It’s a way of attending our attention, and our quality of awareness is all part of that.”

As it turns out, some of the world’s largest corporations – including Apple, Yahoo, General Mills, and IBM – are catching on to the benefits of Incorporating mindfulness and other love-centered practices into the workplace.

For example, Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” employee training was described by one participant as “organizational WD-40, a necessary lubricant between driven, ambitious employees and Google’s demanding corporate culture,” who added that “helping employees handle stress and defuse emotion helps everyone work more effectively.”

This and similar voluntary programs have been widely reported to improve focus and productivity, increase employee satisfaction, improve communication, and reduce stress in the workplace.

I asked Giles what he would recommend to enable the switch to a more love-centered business or even to enable one’s employees or coworkers. He replied:

(A lot of organizations are trying) to bring in a greater clarity of awareness and sense of purpose into their organization, which helps people slow down and…sense with how they’re acting and interacting.

And so it’s a sense of presence, whether that is having 10 minutes of silence at the beginning and end of every day, or encouraging people in work-breaks to engage in contemplative practices such as meditation or having meetings walking in the park, or doing some stretches or yoga. Things like that, which help align the mind, body and soul in the workplace which is essentially healthy for the business.

Some of that is at a personal level, encouraging people to be aware of certain things. And by the way this isn’t in any way a kind of propaganda or mainstream sort of education put on people. It’s very much there as an invitation and general awareness for people to take or leave as they wish. Everybody is on their own journey and a part of this is recognizing that.

And at perhaps a more systemic level in the organization is recognizing what kind of leaders that you want in your business. How do you emulate success in the organization? What type of people do you want leading other people? And I think this is about walking your talk. And so leaders who are actually leading from the heart, who are leading with love, are the ones that are going to help emulate a culture like that in the organization.

Listen to the full interview with Giles Hutchins here.

To explore Giles Hutchins’ work further, visit www.thenatureofbusiness.org.

How have you experienced the effect of love in business? How has it made a difference in your organization or in your life?

Social Media: A Support Tool or Menace for Sustainability in Business?

Social Media Butterfly Iliyana Stareva shares research and insights on using social media to promote sustainability and green products and services

Iliyana Stareva, Social Media Butterfly
Social Media Butterfly Iliyana Stareva shares research and insights on using social media to promote sustainability and green products and services

A few months back I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Iliyana Stareva, then a graduate student in management and marketing at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund, Germany, as part of her research for her dissertation, “The Power of Social Media as a Communications Channel for Creating Business Sustainability Value: a Support Tool or Menace?”

As you might guess, Iliyana’s research is an excellent resource for anyone marketing sustainable products or services, as well as any company interested in sharing its sustainability initiatives publicly.

On her blog, Iliyana graciously invites sharing of her findings. So it is my pleasure to include an excerpt from her post about the project. Here (in Iliyana’s own words) are the main conclusions of her research (I have emphasized certain key ideas and phrases that I think are highly important for green marketers):

  • There is a need for a new business culture based on the ability to feel and show empathy and the ability to change and move away from traditional horizontal and vertical business approaches towards a web, ecosystem and dialogue-based mindset for more innovative and value-driven collaboration. Consequently, there is a requirement to change the currently very dry, technical and preaching-like nature of sustainability communications towards making it more relevant, emotional, fun, provocative and engaging in order to better reach audiences on a larger scale.
  • In this regard, social media can be that new tool because, since it shares the same values as sustainability (community, transparency, authenticity, innovation, creativity and collaboration), combining and aligning the two concepts could have a powerful impact on effectively balancing the triple bottom line. Social media can thus be an asset that companies should capitalise on, as it can provide competitive advantages and allow brands to become pioneers. But, real commitment to social media sustainability communications is nevertheless required. Most importantly, both practices need to be embedded throughout the organisation – only then can they be effective.   
  • Social media allows companies to be creative, authentic, honest and transparent in their sustainability communications approaches and offers them the platforms to attentively listen and directly respond to what customers and other stakeholders are saying. Hence, social media provides tremendous benefits for organisations to increase brand awareness, promote sustainability initiatives and efforts, engage with stakeholders, integrate them into the company processes, facilitate knowledge management, advocate green activities and inspire sustainable lifestyles.
  • As a support tool social media can not only serve as a communications channel, it can go beyond just sharing information to being a collaboration and co-operation tool that can create value and drive real change through storytelling, community building, crowdsourcing, open innovation and co-creation. Thus, social media can be a strong differentiator and a source of transparent and engaging competitive advantage for business sustainability and so help create a sustainable brand.
  • On the other hand, as social media gives everyone a voice and allows for information to spread rapidly like a virus, brands have lost control over the conversation and it becomes a challenge how to deal with stakeholder scrutiny and negativity expressed online. Those, who try to control the conversation in persuasive and manipulative manners or by deleting comments, are put at the risk of a crisis that can seriously damage or even destroy a company’s reputation. Organisations that lack transparency and honesty in their communications are inevitably found out.
  • Not understanding the nature of social media and ignoring its transparency requirement by, for example, choosing practices such as greenwashing is a main reason for inducing the menacing role social media can play. But because on social media nothing stays hidden brands are required to ‘walk the talk’, aligning content with context.
  • The benefits of social media outweigh the risks for most organisations; those who fail to understand the new social landscape will be endangered of having their business disrupted by social technologies.

(If you have read my white paper on FTC compliance, you might recognize many of the key concepts echoed in Iliyana’s findings.)

Iliyana ends with a profound thought: that it is the responsibility of businesses to be leaders in the shift towards a more sustainable world.

To enhance the present and preserve the future companies must play their role in educating society… Education, though, starts with communication – if society is not made aware of the issues and their extents, then solving them is not possible. As Galileo once said, “you cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself” – people cannot be forced or driven to agree or act in the way others want; people need to be gently and friendly led, inspired and engaged to change their minds. This is where the potential of social media lies because it is first and for most about people and relationships.

This is an especially important point.  With all the risk of greenwashing it can be tempting to steer clear of addressing sustainability, but ultimately it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep it top of mind publicly as well as when planning one’s own corporate sustainability initiatives.

One last gift from Iliyana (who, by the way, received an A+ on her dissertation and is now the Social Media Account Manager at Brandzeichen Markenberatung und Kommunikation GmbH in Duesseldorf – congratulations, Iliyana!): this awesome Best Practice Guide infographic you can use to help your company stay on the good side of social media:

 Sustainability Social Media Best Practice Infographic

 

Could anti-child abuse ad backfire in the long run?

Child abuse is a serious problem, and needs to be addressed. And the ANAR ad is a well-executed, well-intentioned attempt to do so. But I’m concerned that in their short-term attempt to help solve the problem, the creators of this ad may well be exacerbating the problem long-term.

I recently wrote a post about a bad ad. This ad used a scene of attempted suicide to make a point about a product. Needless to say, it was  almost universally recognized as being tasteless. And of course it did nothing to improve the company’s image, let alone sales.

Anar child abuse poster
A Spanish anti-child abuse poster offers targeted messages to potential victims and perpetrators of abuse. But could it backfire in the end?

But there’s another ad out there that is receiving all kinds of applause. It is clever. It is well intentioned. It might even help save a life. And yet, I have grave reservations. I suspect that this ad, too, might actually do more harm than good.

The ad was created by the Spanish division of the Grey Group for the the ANAR foundation, a Spanish child advocacy organization. The outdoor poster is intended to combat child abuse by sending separate targeted messages to both children and their potential abusers. In order to do this, the ad incorporates lenticular printing, which allows different images to appear when viewed at different angles.

An adult viewing the poster sees a child’s face and the message, “Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.” However, when viewed from 4’3″ or lower, the child’s face appears bruised and the message changes to “If somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,” along with ANAR’s child abuse hotline number.

The concept is brilliant. And for older children, it could prove to be life-changing, if not life-saving.

As I said, though, I have reservations. The hotline portion of the ad is targeted at children ages 10 and under. But only about half of this population is even literate. Children under about 5 won’t get the all-important verbal message. All they’ll see is a child’s bruised face.

Think about that for a minute.

Pre-literate children are sensitive to the world in a way that you and I haven’t been for many, many years. They live in a world of images and sensations largely untempered by logic.

What will a four year old child think when he sees the bruised face of the boy in the ad?

I can think of a lot of possibilities, but none of them involve picking up the phone and calling for help.

If the child has not personally experienced abuse, perhaps he will assume that the boy fell off his bike. Or maybe he will mistake the bruising for jam.

But what if the child has himself been abused? What if he carries similar bruises on his own small body, or has seen them on his siblings or friends?

Don’t you think – in the absence of a verbal explanation – that the message he receives might be the very opposite of that which the ad is intended to convey?

Mightn’t the prominent public display of the image of an abused child serve as a validation in the child’s mind that the abuse he has experienced is normal?

The concept of the development of normative beliefs  – the formation of beliefs and world view based on what is perceived as usual or normal in an individual’s environment – is well documented. In a 2003 paper entitled Imitation and the Effects of Observing Media Violence on Behavior, University of Michigan Professor of Communication Studies & Psychology L. Rowell Huesmann writes:

Children’s own behaviors influence the normative beliefs that develop, but so do the children’s observation of the behaviors of those around them including those observed in the mass media…

…(T)he size of the correlation between media violence viewing in childhood and later adult aggression was …higher than the correlation between exposure to lead and IQ loss, between calcium intake and bone mass, between exposure to asbestos and laryngeal cancer, and exposure to passive smoking in the workplace and lung cancer.

Granted, Huesmann’s study focused on active media violence observed through video. However, he also mentions a phenomenon called “desensitization,” in which repeated exposure to blood, gore and violence (including images thereof) eventually negates the innate negative reactions to such things that most humans experience. People who have been desensitized to violence in this manner have been proven more likely to become perpetrators themselves.

Child abuse is a serious problem, and needs to be addressed. And the ANAR ad is a well-executed, well-intentioned attempt to do so. But I’m concerned that in their short-term attempt to help solve the problem, the creators of this ad may well be exacerbating the problem long-term.

I’m no psychologist (and I have no idea if the ad has been effective in its purpose), but doesn’t it seem like exposing young children to images of abused children could easily contribute to the desensitization of young (and older) children to the horrors of abuse, and to the formation of subconscious beliefs that child abuse is normal and acceptable?

Is this ad acceptable? Do its potential benefits outweigh its potential harm? How else could the message be relayed?

What do you think?

5 Simple Ways to Let Your Customers Know You Care

A little bit of personal attention can make the difference between a prospect who walks away and one who converts to a happy customer – potentially bringing in even more business through word of mouth.

Man playing guitar
It’s OK to strum your guitar while speaking to customers. Just be sure to look up and smile while you do it!
Illustration ©2013 by Anne Michelsen, courtesy of Kids Celebrating Earth

Back when I worked in retail music, I’d frequently hear comments like this from customers:

“To be honest, I was going to rent my son’s trumpet at the other store in town. But I walked in there and the store tender was too busy picking at his guitar to pay me any attention. So I walked out and came here instead. I’m so glad I did. Thanks for all your personal attention. I’m going to tell my friends.”

A little bit of personal attention can make the difference between a prospect who walks away and one who converts to a happy customer – potentially bringing in even more business through word of mouth.

It doesn’t have to be anything earth shaking, either. In my case, all I did was offer a genuine smile and a “What can I do for you today?” to anyone who came through the door. No matter their age or the condition of their clothes.

But what if you’re not involved in brick and mortar retail? What if you never actually see a single one of your customers?

No matter. There are still plenty of ways to help your prospects feel appreciated and acknowledged. When they do, they’ll be so much more likely to stay around and buy.

Here are five things you can do to roll out that virtual red carpet to anyone who comes your way:

  1. Speak to your customer’s needs and desires. This is so basic, I’m sure you’ve heard it a bazillion times before. But I still come across home pages that are nothing but rants on How Great We Are, with nary a thought given to what the customer wants. (Ironically, the worst offenders I’ve come across have been marketing agencies.) Seriously, you might as well go play your guitar to the wall.
  2. Use language your customer can relate to. Ever read an article or white paper you thought might be useful – only to abandon it midway because you just don’t have time to read every paragraph twice? Business writing should be easy to read. Period. Think middle school reading level. And no, that doesn’t mean you’re talking down to your reader. (For example, this article rates at grade level 5.2). It just helps busy people stay focused.
  3. Embed a smile in your words. I have one corporate client who is very formal in his emails to me. Every time I got an email from him I used to wonder if he really wanted to be working with me. This went on for months, until one day I stopped by his office to take care of some business in person. He came out grinning from ear to ear, loudly praising my work to everyone in sight. (Kind of embarrassing, but in a good way!) Now, I’m not picking on my client. He’s not dealing with customers. But if you are, make sure the warm feelings you have towards them come through in every single thing they read from you.
  4. Offer something of value. Of course, your customers want value from your products or services. But how can they be sure they’ll get it from you? When you give them something useful, they don’t have to wonder. Free samples are great. So are coupons. But information is often at least as effective. Try a tip sheet, white paper, or idea book that explains fun or useful things other customers have done with your products.
  5. Keep delivering value. Once you have permission to contact a customer, don’t stop. They’re guaranteed to forget about you if they do. Keep drip feeding them good stuff via newsletters, blogs, or even postcards. Just be sure it’s relevant to their needs and desires. And don’t forget to make it easy and fun to read!

What’s your favorite way to let your customers know you love them? Post it below. If it’s a good tip I’ll tweet it out!

A Little Bit of Love

I wasn’t thrilled that she was the one to wait on me. But as she was processing my transaction, I had the sudden impulse to send her love.

Illustration: Hands with glowing heart
“Love Offering,” digital illustration ©2013 by Anne Michelsen

The other day I had to do some banking. I love my bank. Everyone there is so friendly – except for one teller. It’s not that she’s mean or overtly unpleasant. It’s just that she always looks vaguely unhappy. And I’ve always somehow come away with the impression that she doesn’t like me.

So I wasn’t thrilled that she was the one to wait on me. But as she was processing my transaction, I had the sudden impulse to send her love.

Her back was turned to me. I just stared at her and imagined I was her mother, and sent warm waves of love across the room to her.

It sounds hokey, I know. But as she handed me my receipt something unusual happened. A warm, wide smile crossed her usually pinched face. And rather than turning away, she took a moment to chat.

A small miracle? Coincidence? You decide.

One Company’s Journey Towards Supply Chain Transparency: Interview with BuyGreen.com Founder Douglas Farquhar

No one knows the challenges of green product sourcing more than Douglas Farquar, founder of BuyGreen.com. Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Doug about the Green Products Standard – his company’s proprietary green product rating system – and the rewards and challenges he and his team experienced in developing and implementing it.

stainless steel water bottles
Figuring out what’s “green” about these water bottles is hard enough, let alone comparing their environmental footprint to, say, a ream of copy paper.

What makes a “green” product green? A simple question, but not so easy to answer. Almost no product is “green” across the board – some features are greener than others, and one has to weigh the environmental pros and cons.

This, of course, is one of the biggest challenges faced by businesses trying to offer more responsible choices – and by consumers trying to make those choices.  The whole scene is confusing, and too often results in consumers just throwing up their hands and giving up – either blindly purchasing whatever “seems” like the best option, or walking away from responsible purchasing altogether.

One Company’s Journey Towards Transparency

No one knows the challenges of green product sourcing more than Douglas Farquhar, founder of BuyGreen.com. He launched his online business in 2007 with two goals:

  1. To create a one stop shop for eco friendly products, and
  2. To offer a way for consumers to intelligently compare products based on their environmental impact.

In order to meet the second goal, BuyGreen.com developed a comprehensive proprietary rating system – the Green Products Standard – for all products sold on their site. The Green Products Standard reviews and rates products based on their environmental impact in four key areas: source materials, manufacturing, materials and disposal.

Products are scored from 1-100 in each of these categories, plus each product is given an overall score. (It’s important to note that a positive score, even a low one, still indicates that a product is more environmentally friendly than typical products on the market.) This scoring method is notable because it enables consumers to compare all BuyGreen.com’s products at a glance – making it much easier to make informed environmental choices.

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Doug about the Green Products Standard, and the rewards and challenges he and his team experienced in developing and implementing it.

Anne Michelsen: What prompted you to implement the Green Products Standard?

Douglas Farquhar: At the time (that we launched BuyGreen.com), I wasn’t always able to understand objectively why & to what extent a product was green. There are a lot of certifying organizations, but they are mostly product or industry focused. For example, if I want to buy copy paper, I know the FSC certification is very good and I look for that. But if I want a water bottle, how do I make sure I’m making as good a decision?

We take trust very seriously – it’s even reflected in our tagline – and I think the Green Product Standard is a pillar of trust for our customers.

Anne: Please tell me about the process you went through to bring the Green Products Standard into being.

Doug: We started out taking it from a laymen’s perspective. Some of these certifications you need to be a PhD to make sense of them, your eyes kind of blur over. We wanted to put it in plain English and in layman’s terms, to make it accessible to the average Joe.

It’s really a part of our product selection process. The initial part of identifying products is not particularly scientific. It’s a gut reaction – “oh, that one looks really good.” That’s how our product selection starts. Then we get samples of the product itself. We want to know that it’s something of quality, that it will last longer than the warranty. We also use the products make sure our customers will have a good experience.

We then ask the supplier to participate in an online questionnaire. There’s often some back and forth communication to make sure we understand the information they supply, and they understand what we’re looking for. We use an algorithm to come up with a rating. Once we accept a product, at the bottom of the product page there’s a link to a full 2 page report for each product.

Once we got the basic framework worked out, we ran it by a number of people for feedback – sustainability consultants in different areas. Our basic theory was, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. We took that approach and threw it against the wall to get people thinking.

I shudder to think back on it – it’s involved several thousand ratings. It was – is ― a huge endeavor.

Anne: What has been the reaction from suppliers?

Doug: We’ve had varying reactions. Some are happy to complete the product questionnaires, some do it grudgingly.

Our merit rating is 0 -99 (it’s technically impossible to reach 100.) One supplier – her products rated in the 60’s – only met the threshold for two of the four basic components. She was fixated on the fact that her product rated a 68, and applied it to her academic experience – “my product is not a D+ product.” What I couldn’t seem to get across to her was that we only apply the standard to products we’ve already identified as green. By virtue of being rated, you’re several steps ahead of most; a 68 actually puts you in the top quartile. But she opted not to go further.

We’ve had some manufacturers, though, who got a rating and said, “what can we do to get a better rating?”

I look at this whole thing as a journey, a marathon rather than a sprint.  Whether it’s the consumer changing their purchasing habits, or the manufacturers changing their products, we’re still moving along for a greener world.

Having a number is a good place to start a conversation. Scores are something people are familiar with and have a good understanding of. Especially in the e-commerce world, we’re all familiar with comparison shopping. A rating system like ours allows customers to have an apples-to-apples comparison to, say, the water bottle and the copy paper.

Anne: And that’s great, especially if they’re looking for a gift and need to compare two very unlike things.  How have customers responded?

Doug: Historically, our light green customers have taken more of a blind approach. They just want to know it’s “green.”  Our dark green customers often have a very specific belief – all things from China are horrible, all plastic is bad.

Of the green buyers, some really like the Green Product Standard a lot and some are oblivious.

With the poor economy the greenwashing situation has become a bigger problem. (We’ve noticed that) more traditional manufacturers and suppliers are trying to put a new spin on their products, and are seeing green as an opportunity to, if not grow, then at least maintain their business. You certainly have traditional stores that suggest that (a product is) green, but it’s often a complete mystery why it’s “green.”

A lot of times the info as to why and to what extent a product is green, is nowhere near the product. You have to go search for it. Or, you’ve found the accreditation and now you’ve got to go find the product.

(Both) transparency and easy access to information are important considerations if you’re trying to avoid greenwashing. Most people don’t have the time or interest in doing the research. They just want to know it’s safe and eco friendly, so they can buy it and move on. (Our program) gives consumers easy access to reliable information they can base their decisions on.

Anne: It’s interesting to hear you make the distinction between different types of consumers. Can you elaborate? Do you have an idea what percentage of your customer base you’d describe as “light” vs. “dark” green?

Doug: No, not really. We get approached from all sorts of different angles.

When we started we were somewhat confused by the LOHAS consumer. We thought people would want to vote with their wallets. Clearly there are consumers out there that do that with some regularity, but regrettably they are the minority. I think it’s somewhat exacerbated by the economy.

Personal safety and health are often the biggest motivators, and by the way, if it’s softer on the planet that’s icing on the cake.

I think we’re starting to see a bit of a change. Selfishness continues to be a motivating factor, but over the last 12 months with some of these weather conditions and gas prices you’re starting to see some of the non LOHAS consumers turning the lights on in their heads. With Sandy, we started selling solar powered flashlights, etc. That motivation was more necessity, but it seemed to come along with a realization that green has merit.

(Interest in going green) comes from all sorts of different places. Sometimes it’s just awareness. Like, “I didn’t know there’s a solar powered flashlight, or biodegradable garbage bags.”

I think we’re facing both a challenge and an opportunity. Ask 100 people if they’re interested in going green, and most will say yes, but there’s a big gap between saying and doing.  Any time we can bridge that gap, whether it’s simple education or making a personal connection, it makes a difference.

Anne: Are you aware of anyone else who’s doing this? Wal Mart comes to mind with their sustainability index – do you know of any others?

Doug: WalMart has some areas where it has a bit of a black eye. As the largest retailer in the world they have an unbelievable opportunity, but I think they’re backed off lately. For them it was more this conceptual effort, where it was going to get pushed down through the supply chain.

The Good Guide is a really good resource, although they were just bought by Underwriters Laboratory – I don’t know what effect that will have. I think they’ve done a good job. But they wouldn’t talk with the manufacturers, they just pulled publicly available information. And they have more of a social focus.

Anne: Tell me about your new website, AskGreen.com.

Doug: From a business model, we hope to have a portfolio of green business websites.  We’re developing GreenCouture.com, we’ve got PrettyHealthy.com in the works, etc. We were going to develop blogs for each one, and thought maybe there was something we could do that would apply to all our ecommerce websites.

And hopefully something interactive. Every time we do a show or something, a person waltzes up and looks at a water bottle or something and asks questions.

AskGreen.com is very new – we’re still working on the questions and answers section. But we hope to offer something of value. To get instant answers, obviously, Google & other search engines provide answers, but sometimes there are things that can’t be answered in a Google search. We’re hoping to offer a place where people can come with their green product questions and get them answered.

Anne: Linked In just dumped their Answers section – are you thinking of jumping in and filling the gap here for green topics, inviting lots of interaction, or will it be more set up as an authority site?

Doug: We’re going to let the interest and demand dictate what direction it will take.

Anne: Thank you, Doug – it’s been a real pleasure speaking to you!

Doug: You’re very welcome!

Please enter your comments and questions about Douglas Farquhar’s insights and/or the Green Products Standard below!

 

 Anne Michelsen was not paid for this article.

When Best Practices Can Land You in Trouble

Every industry has its best practices – methods and techniques that have been proven time and again to bring exceptional results. But best practices are based on what has worked in the past. What happens when an industry – or perhaps an entire society – is in flux?

in troubleEvery industry has its best practices – methods and techniques that have been proven time and again to bring exceptional results.

And few industries test their techniques so brutally as direct response copywriting.

After all, a slight tweak to a sales letter can mean a difference of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of dollars in profit – or loss.

So when three of the highest-paid, most successful copywriters in America all endorse a technique, don’t you think you’d better listen?

Normally, I’d say, “You bet! Listen and emulate!”

But heads up – and this is important.

Best practices are based on what has worked in the past. What happens when an industry – or perhaps an entire society – is in flux?

Then you’d better watch your tail. Because blindly following best practices – even when endorsed by giants in their fields – can land you in trouble.

The Magic of False Logic

Bob Bly is an extremely well-known, top-tier B2B copywriter.  Bob publishes an insightful e-newsletter in which he shares many of his excellent copywriting, marketing and personal productivity tips. (It’s worth following.)

A couple of months ago Bob published an e-newsletter article titled The Magic of False Logic.

“False logic,” he explains, is “copy that manipulates (but does not lie about or misrepresent), through skillful writing, existing facts. The objective: to help readers come to conclusions that those facts, presented without the twists of a copywriter’s pen, might not otherwise support.”

He uses the example of a metal broker who claims that “95% of orders (are) shipped from stock,” even though he does not have a warehouse. When questioned, it turns out they are shipped from the metal supplier’s stock, not his own.

­­Green vs. the Three Giants

Bob Bly isn’t the only master copywriter to endorse the “false logic” technique. I’ve seen Dan Kennedy and Michael Masterson encourage it, too.

Now, each of these individuals belongs to the upper echelon of the copywriting world. To put it in perspective, they are the Donald Trumps and the Bill Gates of their profession. They know what they are talking about, and then some.

So when I say they are wrong, I’m risking my reputation.

But I’m going to say it anyway.

THEY’RE WRONG.

They’re wrong, at least, if you are selling anything that might be considered “green.”

What the Green Guides Say

False logic is an effective, proven technique. And it’s endemic in conventional marketing.

However, when applied to green claims, it’s an approach that is likely to violate the FTC’s standards for environmental messaging.

In Section 260.2 (Interpretation and Substantiation of Environmental Marketing Claims), the Green Guides state:

“A representation, omission, or practice is deceptive if it is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances and is material to consumers’ decisions…To determine if an advertisement is deceptive, marketers must identify all express and implied claims that the advertisement reasonably conveys. Marketers must ensure that all reasonable interpretations of their claims are truthful, not misleading, and supported by a reasonable basis before they make the claims.”

Preventing deceptive claims is the primary purpose of the Green Guides. The FTC doesn’t care about the literal truth – the only thing that matters to it is whether or not customers might find your statement misleading.

The FTC’s Zero Tolerance

Last October’s FTC action against two paint companies is an excellent example. The paints in question were labeled “Zero VOC.” This was technically true – for the paints as they came in the bucket.

However, depending on the final colors used to tint the paint, the customer could end up going home with paint containing measurable VOC content.

The FTC showed zero tolerance for truth twisting in this case. This, even though one of the companies had included a disclosure in their marketing collateral.  (The disclosure wasn’t obvious enough, according to the agency.)

A Better Best Practice

Best practice or not, I would be very careful about using false logic when marketing and advertising green products and services.

And given the trends I am seeing towards greater transparency even amongst mainstream companies, I would hazard a guess that it’s not the safest bet for anyone anymore.

Despite Bob Bly’s assurance that false logic is not lying or manipulation, it’s a fine line between truth and misrepresentation, and the technique can dance you dangerously close to the edge. All it takes is one or two dissatisfied customers who feel they’ve been lied to (whether or not it’s true) to smear your name all over social media. And then, of course, there’s the FTC.

A better best practice?

Use real logic.

Figure out how to position the truth of your service, product or company as a benefit to your customer.

Like that metal broker. It seems to me that instead of pretending to be something he’s not, he could position himself as having a unique business model (which he does; instead of being a dealer with a big warehouse like all his competitors, he’s one guy in an office.)

He could explain how his business is based on relationships, and how he uses those relationships to meet his customers’ needs better and faster than the competition.

In fact, a true story like that might even be more compelling than his dicey false logic claim.

Just sayin.’

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photo credit: CircaSassy via photopin cc

Rethinking GoDaddy

Ever have one of those wake-up moments? When you suddenly realize that your actions aren’t in line with your values?  I did today.

Well, to be perfectly truthful, it wasn’t so sudden. I’ve suspected for quite some time that the hosting company I’ve been using, GoDaddy, isn’t exactly earth-friendly. But I’ve always had such great service from them that I’ve turned it into a personal blind spot.

Then a couple of days ago I joined The Hub by LOHAS. It’s an online sustainable business network that encourages socially and environmentally conscious businesses to connect and do business with each other. In order to join you have to take a pledge to support like minded business. I signed, and then got to thinking…

Am I really doing all I can do to shop my conscience?

So I went online and tried to find any evidence that GoDaddy was taking any steps towards sustainability. I found nothing on their website. (In fact, if you go to GoDaddy’s blog and type “sustainable” or “sustainability” into the search box, you’ll get a notice that says, “Sorry, but you’re looking for something that isn’t here.”)

Then I did a search and all I could find that seemed remotely related to environmental issues was Bob Parsons, the CEO of GoDaddy, killing a “rogue” elephant in Zimbabwe. (See the video, along with a few good suggestions for effective, alternative ways to deal with problem elephants other than blowing their brains out, here.)

So, it seems the time has come to start looking for other options.

But, like I said, GoDaddy has been very good to me and I don’t think it’s fair to just up and take my business elsewhere without communicating why or giving the company a chance to redeem itself. How much better if they actually do start to change due to consumer demand! So I composed a letter to GoDaddy through their support page. It went like this:

Dear GoDaddy,

I’m contacting you because like an increasing number of consumers, I am deeply committed to protecting the environment and prefer to do business with companies who share my concern.

I’ve been meaning for some time to check up on your sustainability record and finally took the time to do so today. I found….nada. Well, actually, if you count the elephant incident, worse than nada.

I provide professional services to green companies, and my website provides the first impression most of my clients have of me. While I LOVE your customer service and enjoy your pricing, I have grave reservations about continuing to host with you unless and until you start taking the issue of sustainability seriously.

Please wake up to the fact that this is the 21st century and we can’t ignore our impact on the planet anymore.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and no one expects you to suddenly be perfect. I’ve appreciated your wonderful service over the past few years and would prefer to keep doing business with you. However I will need to start seeing some kind of dialogue about and action towards sustainability on your part, or I will feel forced to take my business elsewhere, and encourage others to do the same.

Thank you,

Anne Michelsen

I’m told it can take up to two days before receiving a response. I really hope they’re open to dialogue, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, I’m going to start researching other hosting and domain options. Any suggestions?

Buying as a Spiritual Act

My blogging friend Souldipper blessed me with a particularly relevant post today. She calls it Making Spiritual Down Payments, and it’s worth perusing, especially if your clientele leans even a little bit towards the spiritually progressive.

The first part of her post recalls her introduction to the world of finance when, as a teenager, she bought herself a graduation gown on layaway.

The thread of thought becomes more esoteric in the second half, however.

“Today, I wanted to make another down-payment,” she writes.  “I decided to make a contribution towards the evolutionary Transformation of our planet – a tad bigger goal than buying a house.”

Hmm. Interesting concept. Was she planning to sit for four hours on her back porch and meditate on world peace? Teach yoga to fourth graders? Start a progressive nonprofit?

As it turns out, no. Her contribution was in fact much more mundane – but with perhaps far more ground-shaking consequences. Especially to the business world.

“I decided to deal with a situation that did not sit well in my soul,” she continues.  “I wrote to a business that has not lived up to the sales pitch that motivated my doing business with them.   I explained my point of view with no inflammatory words, just facts from the heart.”

Dealing with a situation that did not sit well in her soul. A beautifully phrased statement, and one that I believe we should all take to heart.

“I closed by explaining that they will lose my business if they respond condescendingly, with quotes from their policy manuals or philosophies from their mission statements.   I invited them to be creative because clients are not longer willing to live without authenticity and service.”

Souldipper, you have that one right. And you’re not the only one. From individuals like you to the protesters on Wall Street, a new wave of consumer consciousness is surfacing in this country and elsewhere. People want more than just low prices and pretty images. They want to know that the businesses they buy from have integrity, values and purpose.

In other words, the act of buying is no longer just a business decision or a matter of convenience. It’s a conscious undertaking with spiritual consequences.

“They may not care, but I know they will remember my email,” concludes Souldipper.

I’m sure they will. And if they’re smart, they’ll pay attention.

 

Green Marketing: Are You Selling Your Soul?

 

A few months back I published a post about a market study entitled Green Marketing: What Works; What Doesn’t – A Marketing Study Of Practitioners.  In the study, a significant percentage of marketers who tracked their responses reported an increase in effectiveness when they used Green messaging in their campaigns.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t intending this post to be particularly insightful. I was simply reporting on some interesting research. I thought the results of the study indicated a heartening trend – that Americans are finally concerned enough about sustainability issues that “green” messaging is actually getting through to them.

However, my little article touched off some intense emotional responses.   One man in particular brought up an issue which needs to be addressed, because it touches on the heart not only of responsible marketing but of our very chances of achieving sustainability in our modern world:

Perhaps you should step back and take a look at what you call green marketing… (followed by a lengthy discourse on the environmental consequences of the coal and nuclear plants which power the Internet and make modern commerce possible.)

Green is a self-aggrandizing rationalization that people use to assert that they are living well for the common good of their fellow man and the planet earth. Sorry folks, this posture ended with Plato’s Republic.

He also sent me a scathing private email ending with:

“Do you really believe in what you write? Or, are you selling your soul for the sake of money?”

Wow.  Talk about a soul-searching question.

Here was my response:

Yes, you’re right.

Marketing is not green. The entire military-industrial-corporate society we live in is completely unsustainable. But I think one has to start somewhere. There are companies and organizations out there that are working to change it for the better. I’m privileged to work with some of them.

Whether or not the messages in question were honest and worthwhile, or whether it was all greenwashing, and whether it’s even ethical to use green messaging is beyond the scope of this post – good topics for another day, for sure.

Yes I know the whole issue of marketing and business and how it relates to the environment is a sticky one at best. It’s amazingly complex and there are few if any straight answers. I welcome your thoughts.
Privately, I went on to explain that I choose to work with forward-thinking companies so that I can put my talents to their highest and best use: promoting the shift towards a sustainable world.  Many of my clients are start-ups, nonprofits and small-scale entrepreneurs.  Quite probably I could make substantially more money working with larger, more established companies.  (On the other hand, like everyone else, I do have bills to pay and kids on a collision course with college, so offering my services free is just not realistic no matter how much good it may do the planet!)  I pointed out that the vast majority of Green initiatives he himself champions can only exist if they’re capable of feeding the hands that drive them.
The next email I got from him was much calmer.  “Sorry I came out with my guns ablazing. At the very least, communicating via the internet saves some trees and diesel fuel pollution.”  He ended by inviting me to review a feasibility study for his green business!

The Irony of Marketing Green

To be sure, it’s easy to get downhearted trying to be sustainable in an unsustainable society.  It’s easy to see “green marketing” as an oxymoron when we think about how many resources we’re still consuming even when we try to cut down on our consumption.  But we have to start somewhere.  And despite all the greenwashing, if you look at the change in public consciousness in the past five years alone, you’ll realize that collectively, we are making a difference. Personally, I think business and marketing can exist and thrive within a sustainable society.  In fact, it has to. Just as sustainability in Nature depends on the flow of energy or life, so economic sustainability depends on the flow of profits.  However, achieving such a goal will result in a radically different business climate than we may be used to.  We’re going to have to change from a linear to a circular understanding of the flow of both products and profits.  Which for many of us will require a radical shift in our physical, mental and spiritual relationship to and understanding of the world we live in.

And what about selling one’s soul?

Well, you could look at it another way.

Sell, baby, sell

Most entrepreneurs I know pour their heart and soul into their businesses.  If your soul is truly aligned with your purpose in life, and if your life’s purpose is in harmony with the greater universe, then you should sell your soul.  You should promote and sell the heck out of it.  Because the more people begin to buy it, the more value – and harmony – you will bring into the world.

I know scores of people who are burning with purpose and are taking real action to make the world a better place.  They’re running nonprofits, starting businesses which offer sustainable alternatives to conventional products and services, and working with school districts and government agencies.  They’re opening people’s minds and instituting new opportunities and infrastructure that support a sustainable future.

Each one of these people – even if they’re unaware of it – is engaged wholeheartedly and unabashedly in the act of selling.

The trick is to be brutally honest with yourself.  Is your reality truly aligned with your ideals? If not, what can you do to bring them closer together?  And if they are, are you doing it justice with your sales?

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer who helps Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into Green marketing and sales writing, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.