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It Doesn’t Matter How You Package Your Sustainable Product

Thu, Aug 19, 2010

Green Business

The other day, as I was shopping for kitchen supplies for my new apartment, I came across a box of drinking glasses. The box was simple and utilitarian: it was made with cardboard and printed on with black ink, and it was labeled Eco-friendly at the bottom, proudly displaying the words, Made with recycled cardboard and soy ink.

Immediately I thought,That’s great! Soy ink is a much more sustainable printing solution! Then I realized that I had no clear idea of what traditional ink is made from and put the box back down, feeling too ashamed to continue shopping. Well, as it turns out, soy-based ink is indeed better for the environment and easier to recycle than the average petroleum-based ink, but the point stands that, at least at first, we all fall for the words on the package.

You’re probably familiar with greenwashing, a term that applies to marketing strategies that misuse environmentalist buzz words to sell products with no real environmental benefit (think clean coal or environmentally-friendly cigarettes), but my experience with the soy ink on the box of glasses is a different beast entirely. In my scenario, a company stated a real environmental benefit to its product that I didn’t immediately understand. This is perhaps the mirror image of greenwashing; the consumer misunderstands a verified claim, rather than being tricked into believing a false one. Call it ignorance or perhaps green-blindness.

The truth is that most of your potential consumers are green-blind. In no way do I consider myself an expert on sustainability, but as a writer for a green business website, I am certainly more familiar with the culture than your average Mr. Joe Customer. I’m willing to bet that at least three quarters of the people who would buy that box of glasses wouldn’t read or care that it was made of recycled cardboard printed on with soy ink, and a good chunk of those people wouldn’t even recycle the box. Most of us, no matter how well meaning, are and will remain green-blind. It’s a fact with which you, as a marketer of your own business and product, have to come to terms: most of the people to whom you are selling are ignorant and would prefer to stay that way.

The lesson to take away from this isn’t complicated: focus on your product and not how you present it. Savvy consumers will know that your product is solid and sustainable and they’ll appreciate the time and effort you put into it. The rest of us won’t care and will stay blind, as we always have, waiting for our clairvoyant friends to lead us along. Yes, presentation is important, but vague or deceptive packaging will do more to harm your reputation and business than no packaging at all. And that’s the real sustainable solution.

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