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Q & A: Selling Points

Joel Makower
An Interview with Joel Makower

Never mind the two green companies he cofounded, the nonprofit boards on which he sits, the Fortune 500 companies for which he consults, the guest appearances with Oprah and Larry King. Joel Makower is first and foremost a storyteller, and he has spent the last 20 years gathering tales of businesses going green...or trying to.

In 1989, a U.S. publisher asked Makower to "Americanize" a British book called The Green Consumer Guide. In the frenzy that followed its publication here in 1990 (under the title The Green Consumer), he was surprised to find that consumers were less interested in environmentalism than corporations were. Companies, he says, have been quietly greening their profiles for years.

The 55-year-old Makower talked to Lisa Selin Davis at his home in Oakland, California, with his golden retriever, Sophie, at his side. As Davis discovered, Makower can speak for 10 minutes on even a simple yes/no question. And she found that he still has more questions than answers. Recent corporate makeovers such as Wal-Mart's impress him, but also make him wonder, are we doing enough -- and are we moving quickly enough?

How did you get from The Green Consumer to consulting for major corporations?

I had a weekly syndicated column in about 100 papers that preached the gospel that every time you open your wallet you cast a vote for or against the environment. But fairly early on I recognized something: consumers weren't all that interested in changing, but the companies I talked to were, either because they wanted to or because they had to. That was really interesting to me, and nobody was talking about it.

Your next book is all about green marketing. What does that term mean to you?

Green marketing is a window into a much bigger picture because you have to look at what you are marketing, where it came from, where the materials came from, how it was designed, its impact all up and down the value chain. I think a lot of what's been written about green marketing is happy talk: "Oh, if you just market it green, the world will beat a path to your door." And it's never that simple. In fact, the landscape is littered with the carcasses of companies that have tried.

That's pretty strong language.

In the early 1990s, when the modern age of green consumerism erupted, companies thought that they didn't have to do much -- just tweak these products and call them green, and there would be this huge market. Some of the stuff they did turned out to be anywhere from ineffective to fraudulent, and it really gave green a black eye. I would posit that green is actually seen as inferior by a lot of people. They think it doesn't work, it doesn't last as long, it's harder to use. Not to mention more expensive. Because most of the early products were that way.

But surely that's changed. Look at the recent wave of green fever.

You call it a recent wave, but I call it an overnight sensation that's been 20 years in the making. Companies have been walking far more than they've been talking, for a number of reasons, one of which is just pure efficiency dressed up in green.

How much do a company's motives actually matter?

It tickles me that when I tell audiences stories about what companies are doing, some skeptic always raises his hand and says, "You know they're not really doing that because they care about the environment but because it's good business." Bingo! What's the difference? For years companies have been squeezing out waste and inefficiency. Anheuser-Busch redesigned a beer can so that the top tapered, making the diameter an eighth of an inch narrower, and without reducing by a drop what goes inside, it saves about 20 million pounds of aluminum a year. And aluminum is one of the top greenhouse gas-producing industries. That's a significant environmental benefit. But it doesn't mean they were putting green seals on Budweiser. They were just happy to make the money.

Do you think the Gore movie and all the media hoopla helped companies come out of the green closet?

It's spurred them to make changes, and it's raised consciousness in consumers. And then there are some things I hadn't anticipated, like Wal-Mart. They're now going to grade their 60,000 suppliers on environmental grounds. That's a game changer, potentially. I think from an environmental perspective Wal-Mart is a true leader. But the environment isn't the only big problem it's facing. And this is where the conversations get philosophical. Is a sustainable Wal-Mart possible? How good is good enough? If we can figure that out from Wal-Mart, I think we've nailed the answer.

Some people say green consumerism is an oxymoron.

In 1990 that was how I started every speech: "Green consumer" is an oxymoron, like "athletic scholarship" and "legal brief." The notion that we can consume our way to environmental health is faulty, to say the least. The most we can hope for is to reduce the damage we do to the planet in the course of buying and using stuff.

In the absence of a rating system, how are we supposed to know whether a particular product or company is actually green?

The problem is that companies don't know what to do; they don't know how good they need to be. I think that frustrates companies, it leaves consumers confused and ultimately cynical, the media don't know what to do with it, the activist community's almost fighting with itself over these issues, government doesn't know whether to lead, follow, or get out of the way, and -- did I mention it's a dysfunctional conversation? The question is, is there a standard we could apply, or do we trust the free-market system to ensure that the most efficient company will ultimately win?

Did you ever consult for a company whose values offended you?

I've worked with companies where the people I was working with were making significant changes, but there were parts of the company, like government affairs, that were lobbying Congress to change or keep laws that allowed them to maintain unsustainable practices.

What did you do about it?

I didn't resign in protest, if that's what you're asking. You do what you can do; there are only so many battles you can fight.

Do you see any flagrant examples of greenwashing?

Actually, not a lot, but I tend to have a bigger tent than many people. I'm blown away by the conversations that are taking place at the board level of major companies on sustainability. But at the same time, there's this tremendous fear, because no company will ever be perfect. One of the things that happen is that when companies talk about what they're doing right, they often unwittingly illuminate problems that the public didn't know they had.

For example?

Back in the late 1990s, Levi Strauss, which at the time was the largest cotton buyer in the world, started sourcing 2 percent of their cotton organically. But they didn't want to talk about it. So of course I asked why not, and they said, "Well, look at it from our perspective. When we talk about why we're doing this, when we say that fully one-fourth of all pesticides in the world are applied to cotton and there's an impact on groundwater runoff and worker health and safety and the birds and the trees, we risk our customers saying, 'So you mean 98 percent of what you use is bad for people and the planet? Why only 2 percent, why not 5 percent? Actually, we're gonna do campus boycotts until you commit to 10 percent organic cotton.' "

So it's tough to know if you're one of the good guys?

Who are the bad guys? That's a hard question, because almost everybody's doing something good. Even Exxon -- they have one of the best environmental management systems around. I'm not for a minute blessing Exxon. I'm just saying that I don't know that there's a Fortune 500 company that isn't asking some version of the question "What's our environmental strategy?" They don't always know what that means; they just know they need one.

I have to say, I'm surprised by how optimistic you sound.

It's part of who I am. And I'm optimistic because so much is going on with companies like Wal-Mart and GE. But the nagging question is, is this too little, too late? I don't know. But I can't dwell there or I'll never get out of bed.

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Lisa Selin Davis is a New York City-based freelance journalist and the author of the novel Belly (Little, Brown).  She alos writes for the New York Times, New York magazine, This Old House, Plenty, and other publications.

Your interview with green marketing guru Joel Makover has not convinced me that there is anything substantive behind the current trend of corporate environmentalism. The "green" solutions offered by corporations such as Wal-Mart, Levi-Strauss and Exxon do not address any of the real problems that need to be faced.

What doesn't seem to occur to Mr. Makover is that entities such as Wal-Mart have nothing of value to offer. Low-priced junk is low-priced junk whether it comes in recyclable packaging or not. Wal-Mart destroys local economies by forcing small independent stores out of business and destroys ecosystems when they pave over wetlands and bulldoze forests to build their behemoth superstores. I don't care (and neither should you) that Wal-Mart is going to start grading their 60,000 suppliers on environmental grounds. I don't feel any better knowing that those giant inflatable Santa's on the lawns of suburbia all over America might have been packaged in cardboard boxes with ten percent post-consumer waste before they were stamped out of a sweatshop in China and shipped halfway around the world in fossil-fuel spewing vehicles. Junk is still junk. Wetlands, businesses and small communities are still being destroyed. Impoverished people in third-world nations are still being exploited.

Furthermore, I object to people, human beings, citizens being referred to exclusively as "consumers." Typecasting such as this only exacerbates the problem of mindless consumption that is degrading the lives of so many Americans today. Human beings don't need "green" packaging and empty, feel-good marketing slogans. Citizens don't need solar-powered Wal-Marts occupying land that was once pristine wetland. People need to spend less time shopping and more time exploring wetlands (if there are any left). We don't need five different kinds of greenwashed Clorox endorsed by the Sierra Club (as advertised on Joel Makover's website). We need to turn off the media barrage that warps our perceptions through the television, the internet, magazines, billboards, etc. There is no place for the unchecked, cancerous growth of corporate giants in a healthy, sustainable environment.

-Jeff DiPerna