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The Hot New Trend: Climate Control

Environment * As consumers become more concerned with global warming, some companies talk up their products' 'green' attributes.

April 25, 2002|KATHERINE ELLISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Ellie Rogers talks to customers in Ann Arbor, Mich., she often dwells as much on the dangers of global warming as on the virtues of her cosmetics and biodegradable kitchen cleaners.

"It may seem like a stretch," allows Rogers. "But I'll ask if they've noticed how hot it has been. And I'll ask if they're concerned about that. And eventually, I'll tell them how more than 2,000 leading scientists around the world say it's a human responsibility, that we're causing this weather change.

"I'm a pest about it," says Rogers, 73.

Yet she's also convinced that, far from turning people away from her sales pitch, her apocalyptic warnings warm them up to it.

The marketing experts at her company, Shaklee Corp., agree. "Global warming is an ice-breaker," sums up Ken Perkins, who masterminds the approach at the firm's Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters.

Perkins subscribes to an argument that's proving to be compelling for an increasing number of other U.S. and European executives: Faced with persistent news about melting ice caps, worsening storms and the likelihood that future generations will broil, the average Joe is much more anxious about the changing climate than his government may suspect. He feels powerless, afraid--and guilty. Scientists tell him he's spewing greenhouse gases by buying products manufactured by burning oil, gas and coal, driving his car and even doing his laundry. And he has no idea how to stop.

But now, at least, Joe can vote with his wallet and buy a product whose purveyors persuade him that at least they're doing something to counteract the crisis.

This reasoning "singles us out," says saleswoman Rogers, who says it builds trust with customers to talk about her firm's good works, including buying solar panels for homes in Sri Lanka. "It makes us not like just another company, and that helps business."

Environmental consciousness is nothing new to companies like Shaklee, with its biodegradable products, and Ben & Jerry's, the Vermont ice cream firm that this month plans to launch a sweet new concoction called "One Sweet Whirled" as part of a climate-change awareness campaign.

What's new is that linking salesmanship with actions to counter global warming is gaining cachet among much larger, mainstream companies. Sue Hall, who counsels businesses on climate strategies as head of the Climate Neutral Network, a 2-year-old nonprofit based in Lake Oswego, Ore., says she's making headway with a dozen Fortune 500 firms. Some executives involved in these discussions say they believe that appeals based on the climate may strike a chord even as other green marketing is on the wane.

"Recycling is passe. Toxics are passe. But global warming is different--it's the hottest issue, no pun intended," exudes an executive at one of the firms, a multibillion-dollar paper company planning to launch a product with a "save the climate" peg. (He asked for anonymity pending the launch date.) Sparking that kind of interest, says Hall, is a "sea change" in American society.

"For so long, people have thought global climate change was just too big to tackle," she explains. "They've been worried, yes, but there was a kind of denial going on. It felt so remote in time, and arcane and technical, and then, of course, you had the scientific debate about it, which has only recently faded."

The idea of global warming was long held suspect, the target of political scorn and skepticism. In the last few years, however, as the scientific consensus has solidified, articles linking droughts and other weather calamities to climate change are appearing more often in the mainstream press, and a grass-roots movement to fight climate change has gained momentum, spurred by churches, college campuses and scores of city governments.

In that context, Hall and other environmentally oriented consultants contend that associating one's company with action on climate change reaps not only good karma but profits.

"People are coming out of their denial and reaching for solutions," Hall says. "But they see an absence of solutions at the government level."

The Climate Neutral Network aims to soothe that frustration by channeling the energy elsewhere--into buying, that is. But only buying products that are branded "Climate Cool."

That trademark, bestowed to date on a line of carpeting from Interface Inc., rooms at a Boston hotel, services from the Better World Travel Agency, the entire operations of Shaklee Corp. and even, most recently, the 2002 Winter Olympics, is awarded only after the firms or event organizers jump through the following hoops.

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