Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How do you differentiate when "green" is no longer enough?

This week on the Co-Op America Business list, one of the members brought up the question of green going mainstream. How do smaller green businesses compete now that corporate America is riding the green train?

My question is: Is being green enough of a reason to convince people to use your company? Personally, as I've mentioned before, I don't think it is.

Last year, I decided to adapt the zen kitchen's business model to the rising trend in green design/marketing by making green a non-issue. My clients know I'm green, they know they're going to get the greenest product I can provide for them and that I *get* what they're trying to do. However, most of my clients come to me because I'm a great designer and I specialize in helping women entrepreneurs and green businesses create their brands. They're looking for my brain and my talent - the fact that I'm eco-friendly is just gravy.

In my mind, if the green movement is really going to gain momentum, it has to move from a conversation to an expectation. This doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about being green; but it should be an "also" rather than a sign of uniqueness. As such, green businesses need to stop trying to justify their decisions, or explain why it costs so much more to make a green product; instead, make it clear that you have a better product that works just as well if not better than the conventional product.

If there's one thing I've learned in three years of running the zen kitchen, it's that it's much more effective to treat the green thing as a given than it is to try to justify it to your clients. The moment you start justifying, it erodes consumer confidence because it seems like *you're* not confident in why they should choose you over the competition.

Another thing I'll mention is that competition doesn't just come from the big corporations who are just getting the hint that green is good. Every green business, no matter how small, has competition from other small businesses who sell very similar products and have a very similar mission. I'm certainly not the only designer in the world who works with women entrepreneurs or with green businesses - I've met and become friends with some who could be considered my direct competition. This is why differentiation beyond green is so important - you're not the only green company in the world, and even more rarely are you the only green company who sells XYZ.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Green Design: Where did that paper come from?

Yesterday, at a seminar on FSC certification and paper held by Kirkwood Printing, several paper companies and a representative of the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) got together to discuss paper's impact on the environment. The discussion focused around such issues as responsible forestry, the paper companies' renewable energy initiatives, and why recycled paper isn't always the greenest option (1. there isn't enough fiber to meet demand; 2. the fibers downgrade over repeated recycling, which means you have to add new content to make it strong enough; 3. the recycled content gets sourced from all over the place). But all of this helped me realize something rather striking: a piece of paper's carbon footprint goes a lot deeper than the paper company itself.

This is the deal: Papermaking isn't just "have tree-make paper." It involves cutting down the tree, turning it into pulp, making paper from the pulp and then distributing the paper. Each of these steps requires a seperate set of trucks driving to a separate facility where each step happens, and most paper companies don't handle every step of the process. They buy their pulp from an outside source, which means that the pulp needs to be shipped to them, after being shipped from the forest. But for the life of me, I can't figure out where it gets shipped FROM.

Finch paper and Cascade (who specializes in recycled) was the only company at the event yesterday that mentioned that they source locally. Cascade actually collects and pulps the paper themselves for their sheets (they're in Quebec). Finch owns the forests that provide much of its pulp, and they buy the rest from small landowners in the New England area (mostly Maine and Vermont). Crane's, Mohawk, Monadnock, Neenah and Sappi were also there (among others), but they didn't have time to speak to the issue in detail. Although many of the companies' sites have extensive information about their environmental stewardship (and most are doing some seriously impressive stuff), I can't seem to find information specifically about where they buy their pulp.

What all of this means is that we now have yet another consideration as green designers: not only do we need to think about how much recycled content, where the paper itself comes from, etc. but we have to think further back along the supply chain: where did the pulp come from? Where were the trees harvested from? How were the rights of the workers and inhabitants of those forests impacted?

FSC certification helps with this by making sure that the forests paper comes from are being managed sustainably, and with respect to the rights of the workers and inhabitants of the forests. But what about the carbon footprint of the two steps prior to paper becoming paper? How can we make sure our paper is coming from responsibly-managed forests while also minimizing the carbon footprint all the way down the supply chain?

I don't have an answer. But I want one.

By the way, what can you do when you're choosing a paper for your next project? Here's a couple of ideas:

• Find paper companies that are as local to you as possible, and look for sheets that are FSC-certified, preferably with a significant amount of postconsumer recycled content.
• If you can, talk to the paper company about where they get the materials for their paper.
• Explore alternative-fiber papers, like cotton, kenaf, sugarcane and bamboo. These have their own carbon-footprint issues (after all, they don't grow sugar in New England, right?), but much of the alternative fiber used in these papers is taking material directly out of the landfill. Crane's sources its cotton from textile industry byproduct (i.e. cuttings that can't be used), and Neenah's sugarcane pulp (in the Environment line) comes from the material left over from the sugar refining process.
• Talk to your printer about what mills are closest to your area, and ask them for advice on the best sheet to use for your project.