Peter White, Procter & Gamble’s head of sustainability, has a clear understanding of what consumers expect from green products

Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble has claimed success in tackling climate change with its Ariel washing powder’s “Turn to 30” campaign. For Peter White, the company’s head of sustainability, Ariel’s experience holds lessons about how to make green marketing campaigns work.

In 2006, Ariel started its Turn to 30 campaign to persuade UK consumers to wash clothes in cooler water to save energy. The planning for the campaign started at the design stage, White says. “You’ve got to have a product that actually works at 30 degrees … If it doesn’t work, they won’t buy it again,” he says.

P&G’s Tide Cold Water washing detergent in the US is also designed to work at low temperatures. Both campaigns have a simple proposition, White says: “Wash at 30 degrees as you normally would and expect the same results.”

As well as receiving praise, Ariel’s claims to wash clothes clean at 30 degrees had to be defended in the press. In May 2007, P&G disputed the medical charity Allergy UK’s claims that washing at low temperatures was insufficient to get rid of allergens in clothes and bed linen.

Small is big

P&G is embracing the new marketing trend for selling more concentrated products in smaller bottles. The products require “less transport, less packaging, less water in the production, and it’s easier for the consumer – it’s a win-win”, says White.

The company’s answer to rival brand Persil’s concentrated washing detergent, “Small and Mighty”, is its fabric softener, Lenor Concentrate. White says P&G communicates the green idea behind the product to consumers by quoting the number of trucks saved from reducing the volume of packaging.

“Over the next five years we are going to develop a market, $20 billion worth, of what we call sustainable innovation products,” White says. Sustainable innovation, according to P&G, means a 10 per cent improvement over the whole life-cycle of a product in one of six environmental categories, compared with alternative or previous products. The categories are energy consumption, water consumption, packaging use, total materials used, waste generation and transport.

P&G’s approach mirrors that of electronics firm Philips, which selects one out of many sustainability concerns to address in new products. But why not address all the environmental criteria in the same product, instead of just one at a time? “It depends on where the main impacts are,” says White. “If you look at a detergent … the big impact in terms of energy use or CO2 emissions comes from the use phase. The biggest thing you can do in that product category is low temperature washing.”

White adds: “The biggest issue with Pampers is the amount of material that’s used. If you look over the last 20 years … the weight of one nappy has gone down 40 per cent and packaging has decreased by 80 per cent.”

While improving performance in one of the categories, no decrease in standards is allowed in any of the other five, White maintains.

Minimised packaging is not new territory for P&G. But the company learned the hard way that consumers put convenience first, White says, when they decided to strip down bottles to plastic refills.

“We pioneered the use of refills back in the 1990s. We put liquid detergents in pouches so [consumers] could fill their bottles at home … Consumers at the time didn’t want that. It was less convenient. The stores didn’t like it because the pouches didn’t sit right on the shelf”.

So what do consumers want from a green product? “They want products that are packaged efficiently. They don’t want excess packaging. They want packaging that can be recycled. They like the idea that it’s made of recycled material. But they also want convenience.”

As for zero-packaging ideas, such as consumers refilling their bottles in store, White says: “It makes a lot of mess and it takes much longer to do your shopping … it doesn’t work.”

Recycling trade-off

According to White, P&G has developed the technology to incorporate up to 50 per cent recycled plastic in its bottles by sandwiching recycled plastic between two sheets of white virgin plastic.

He says there is necessary trade-off between what’s green and what’s acceptable to consumers. “Recycled plastic is dirty grey, and consumers expect products to look pristine and clean. If you put a product in a 100 per cent recycled plastic bottle, the consumer wouldn’t buy it”.

In some brands, P&G uses the full 50 per cent recycled plastic and in other brands it uses less. White says: “One of the problems is actually getting hold of enough recycled plastic.”

Greener plastic is simply more expensive, he adds. “Plastic is high volume, and relatively low value,” he says. “In many cases recycled costs more than virgin, and so all the recycled goes to where they’re going to pay for it, which is China. Recycled at reasonable cost is not often available.”

Wholly “green” products are still a niche market, seen as undesirable or overly expensive to most people, according to White. Companies have to couple green claims with practical benefits in order to win over the average consumer. For example, P&G’s greener, more concentrated products are designed to be lighter and easier to carry, while the energy-saving washing campaign saves customers money.

White says: “There are some people who will buy green because that’s one of their core consumer needs. Then there’s a mainstream that will behave in a sustainable way if you make it easy for them and don’t ask them to make compromises.”

Selling green

Peter White’s advice on green marketing is: “It’s not what you say, it’s what you deliver.”

He says: “The worst thing you can do for a bad product is advertise it well. If you have lots of advertising for a lousy product, people will buy it, have high expectations, be disappointed and never go back to that product again”.

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