Green marketing just good marketing: An interview with Jacquie Ottman

Jacquie Ottman

Jacquie Ottman, Author of The New Rules of Green Marketing

Jacquie Ottman is founder and principal of J. Ottman Consulting and a leading expert on green marketing in the United States. Since leaving an early career in advertising, she has gained over twenty years experience working with sustainability leaders to promote “eco-innovation” in products and services and develop award-winning green marketing campaigns.

We caught up with Jacquie in March 2011 to talk about balancing environmental messages with brand messages, greenwash avoidance, and her newly released book, The New Rules of Green Marketing.


Julia Barnes: You’ve just released your new book, “The New Rules for Green Marketing.” What’s wrong with the old rules of green marketing? Why do we need new ones?

Jacquie Ottman: The old rules of green marketing were targeted to early green adopters, like today’s deep green consumers, a group motivated by altruism. They were more willing than average to trade off on quality if they felt that the products were less toxic or harmful. However, we’ve come a long way since the very first Earth Day in the Spring of 1969 and I officially declare that green is now mainstream. But mainstream, lighter green consumers that make up the bulk of the market place are not willing to make the trade off. To them, the green represents an added source of value that they may pay a little extra for or, if it’s enough added value, switch brands but they will not trade off on performance, convenience, cleaning power, in other words, the primary things that they look for in the products that they buy.

What I say is good green marketing is simply good marketing. When you’ve got a new product, either an existing product that’s been greened up or [a product] that’s been built from the ground up based on an environmental idea, like a Toyota Prius, look at the primary, distinctive benefits that the product provides. If you want to reach that broad swath of consumers, lead with the primary benefits and then say, “Oh yes, it’s green, too.”

JB: You’ve said that, as consumers, we can’t know everything about a brand. When we go into the store, we have to rely on our perceptions. How important do you think it is for companies to inform consumers about the true environmental costs and benefits of their brands. Is it their responsibility?

JO: It is not their responsibility, in an economy where “buyer beware” largely still reigns, but it is their responsibility to market their products responsibly. Everybody wants to put their best foot forward, but I think [the bad and the ugly] should be part of their overall communications. Somewhere on the website say, “We want to tell you more so you can make the right decision.”

I have 20 rules of green marketing in the book and one of them is consumers don’t expect perfection. I really believe that consumers intuitively understand that no product can be green. All products use resources and create waste: there’s got to be something wrong with them. So one concept that I’m trying to use the book to put out there is responsible consumption, or shared responsibility. If you look in chapter four, there’s a chart from Procter & Gamble that shows a huge spike [in energy use] occurring in the use stage for Tide and that’s because it’s used in hot. It needs water and consumers use hot water. You think manufacturers have a responsibility now to reduce the impacts of their products at every phase of the life cycle? Well there’s certain phases of the life cycle where they need this element of shared responsibility with the consumers. The consumers are the ones who can turn the water down, run the washer at full loads, etc. [Companies] can encourage and reward consumers but, at the end of the day, it’s the consumer effort that’s needed.

  • Peter Rose

    I disagree with Ms. Ottman that terrachoice’s seven sins of greenwashing is to hard for companies to avoid. I agree that many of the sins that companies make may be inadvertent however thats why the competition bureau in Canada and terrachoice have specific guidelines and lists to check against. Furthermore, there are some sins that are common sense and in my opinion if committed are very likely active greenwashing.

    If a company is willing to place a green claim on a product they should be willing to put the due diligence forward that they are not committing a green washing sin. Some of these are really simple for example the “sin of irrelevance” committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. “CFC-free” is a common example,
    since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law. My opinion is if you sin by marketing an irrelevant claim that is active greenwashing.

    Overall I think all products should have a green rating similar to what the GoodGuide is attempting to do. That way its not about purchasing based on a single claim its about purchasing based on the ability to compare environmental performance amongst products in the same category.

  • Melissa Peneycad

    While I appreciate Ottman’s viewpoints, some of her statements are incorrect and misleading and can result in dangerous marketplace consequences. For example, I take issue with her statement that “consumers don’t expect perfection”. This statement, if true, removes any incentive for companies to strive for perfection. It basically opens up the door for companies to say “Well, consumers don’t actually expect us to share the good, the bad, and the ugly about our products and, since consumers don’t expect that – or perfection – we just won’t strive for it”. Consumers are beginning to demand better green marketing. Raising the bar and continuing to demand that corporations enhance their green marketing is the only way we’ll see real improvement.

    And this is precisely what TerraChoice’s “Sins of Greewashing” is doing. The research has highlighted a significant issue in the marketplace and it has got people like you and me talking about it. Don’t fool yourself – greenwashing IS rampant but improvements are certainly being made thanks to those who continue to educate consumers and marketers about the issue and how greenwashing can be mitigated, to the retailers who are demanding improved transparency from their suppliers, to the many marketers who are devoting themselves to learning about the issue of greenwashing and how green marketing can be improved, and to the consumers who are demanding perfection.

    Yes, TerraChoice does set the bar high – but why shouldn’t it?