News & Views

Jacquie Ottman Celebrates 25 Years in Green Marketing

07/24/2014

Jacquie Ottman pioneered green marketing when she hung out a shingle for J. Ottman Consulting on July 28, 1989. And she’s been a member of the Sustainable Brands community since its inception.

She’s written five books on green marketing, including The New Rules of Green Marketing (Berrett Koehler, 2011) and How to Make Credible Green Marketing Claims (with David Mallen, [Ad Age, 2013]).

Last year, she also launched WeHateToWaste.com (WHTW) — a forum for influencers and brands to discuss practical steps that brands and consumers can take to advance a no-waste lifestyle.

In the lead-up to her 25th anniversary on July 28, we asked Jacquie about the evolution of “green marketing,” and her plans for WeHateToWaste.com and the years ahead.

Q. Congratulations on 25 years! Tell us a little bit about when you got started working in the emerging field of green marketing. Was it even called ‘green marketing’ back then?

A. I opened my firm in 1989 after spearheading a pretty intensive project for a NYC ad agency on the implications of environmental issues for consumer packaged goods. We were looking for grist for new products, messages and the like that would be prompted by growing concerns over water and air quality, solid waste, pesticide residues on foods and ozone layer depletion. The term “green marketing” didn’t exist — back then, I called it “environmental marketing” and “environmental consumerism,” but Ad Age gets the credit for coining the term “green marketing.”

Q: What were your goals when you got started? Have they been met?

A. Yes and no. On the one hand, I wanted to apply the bring the consumer packaged goods marketing expertise that I had acquired while working on Madison Avenue to bear for products and services that were designed from the get-go to be greener. I believe I’ve done that in spades, not only directly by working with many clients large and small over the years, but indirectly, in sharing what I have learned along the way in my books, articles and the like.

That said, I intended at the outset to do a lot more new product concept work than I wound up doing. I had had a lot of experience back in my agency days dreaming up ideas for new products for clients including Procter & Gamble and Ralston Purina. I concluded from the research I had done in the late 1980s for that ad agency that simply ‘tweaking’ existing products — “incrementalism” — was not going to bring about the kinds of significant shifts in consumption and resource use that is necessary to achieve sustainability. In fact, my company’s mission at the time was to “help corporate America develop the next generation of products with the environment in mind.” I didn’t wind up doing a lot of the new product concept generation, but I was brought in to help develop strategy behind the launch of many new products over these past several years. 

On the one hand, I believe I significantly underestimated the willingness of corporate America to invest in new technologies — to actually ‘put themselves out of business,’ so to speak, with radical innovation. That said, I am seeing a lot more radical kinds of thinking going on now, and I am hoping to be able to make more of a contribution in that realm with We HateToWaste.com.

Jacquie OttmanQ: How so?

A: On the one hand, WeHateToWaste is an open community of folks who are passionate about living less wastefully that anyone anywhere can participate in and learn from. On the business side, we can tap into them co-creators — for insights and ideas for new products, and to help evaluate new products that use resources sparingly. We can contact them directly for market surveys, and product sampling, too.

Because we are attracting so many influencers there is also the opportunity to pursue corporate sponsors whose brands align with the no-waste lifestyle. I’m proud to say that we have signed up our Charter Sponsor, Ingersoll Rand, and are in conversations with other companies as we speak.

Q. Why the emphasis on waste?

A. It fits my personality and lifestyle, and it also underlies a lot of the issues and opportunities I’ve enjoyed addressing the most in my work: especially vis a vis energy and water efficiency, food waste and packaging.

Q: So you’re really talking about ‘lean’ instead of ‘green’?

A. Yes, indeed. One encompasses the other. Just the way I’ve been advising clients to focus on primary consumer benefits, by focusing on lean, we also achieve ‘green’ but we are casting a potentially broader net demographically — bringing in folks who are also deeply religious or ethical, frugal, even short on cash. So whatever your reason for wanting to live lean doesn’t matter to me. In the end, the outcome — a greener outcome, will result.

Q: What Inspired you to found WHTW?

Three things: My dad, Graham Hill’s LifeEdited.com, and my now 20-year-old niece. Growing up, I noticed that my Dad used to sharpen pencils right down to the nub. He would also cut up scraps of used paper into a uniform sizes and staple them together to create little note pads for himself. Now he didn’t have to do those things, he just did them. I think it’s in his genes. Well, when I was four, I started dragging board games home from the neighbor’s trash — so I guess I inherited my dumpster-diving genes from my Dad.

I got very excited when I discovered Graham’s LifeEdited.com apartment — and marveled at all that could be done to stretch 400 ft2 in NYC. For over 20 years, when I was first out of college, I lived in a 280-sq-ft studio in NYC, but not as elegantly. I saw that the creativity involved in living so efficiently, which I felt I had mastered, could be used effectively in the world going forward, supplemented by the sharing economy. Who needs a lot of space if you can simply borrow stuff when you need it?

Finally, when she was 15, my niece started a YouTube channel to mobilize teens who, like her, were bullied by others. I saw the power of building an online community, and in her example, the power of a very upfront, bold telegraphic name: WeStopHate.

Q: Sounds like you are talking to the converted with WeHateToWaste, no? How to get the masses to live waste-free — isn’t that the Holy Grail of Sustainability?

Our concept revolves around the concept of leverage. In our case, we are empowering the influencers and the proselytizers with new information and inspiration, and a network to help challenge and refine their ideas.

For instance, many members of our community brought their own cloth bags to the supermarket long before it was fashionable — ditto coffee mugs at the office and reusable water bottles. By interacting with them, we can discover their unmet needs for taking the next steps — the kernels of inspiration for new products that can make waste-free living acceptable, even cool, for all consumers. In a nutshell, we’re looking for the next cloth shopping bag, the next refillable water bottle.

Q. Tell us about your years working with ‘corporate America.’

When I first got started in 1989 and through the 1990s, I was hired a lot by EH&S directors who could see the writing on the wall strategically, and needed outside support for making the business case for integrating “green” within the businesses to the marketing and strategy folks. Or their marketing and packaging folks needed expert advice that they couldn’t get from their advertising and PR agencies who just didn’t have the experience working in green marketing.

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of working with companies like Philips, IBM, GE, Kraft General Foods (now Mondelez) and HSBC, among others, on strategies for addressing the growing environmental needs of their consumers. It’s been fascinating to watch over the past 25 years how these ideas took years to reach the top and then make their way back down again in the form of enlightened policies and programs and products.

Q: After 25 years, what are you most proud of?

First, tenacity. I’ve seen a lot of green consultants come and go over the years. I’ve had my share of tough years, as all consultants do. However, I’ve been lucky to have been able to continue to do the work that I love for 25 straight years, each with the opportunity to continue to learn and grow continuously in my field.

I think one reason why I was able to stick things out through the tough times is that I actually live lean — I don’t have high overhead. Secondly, I love what I do so much, it was impossible to think of what else I would do!

Secondly, making a contribution. I don’t want to sound like I ‘invented the Internet’ but I will take credit for introducing the idea of focusing messaging for greener products on the primary consumer benefits — the ‘what’s in it for me’ that was missing from so much early green marketing efforts. An article I wrote for the Environment journal with Ed Stafford and Cathy Hartman of Utah State entitled “Avoiding Green Marketing Myopia” was really seminal. I’m sure you recall me saying for many years now to ‘avoid the babies, planets and daisies.’ This all made so much sense to me having cut my teeth selling consumer goods for P&G and Ralston back in my agency days. In the big agencies, if you didn’t focus on consumer benefits in the ads, you’d be thrown out of the room.

And of course, I’m proud of my books. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t get a nice compliment from a student, a teacher or a marketing manager — sometimes from as far away as Turkey or Bangladesh — letting me know how helpful my books have been to them.

Q: You’ve been helping companies deal with ‘greenwashing’ for a long time now. Do you think there’s hope for getting past it?

There will always be the problem of misleading consumers, intentionally or unintentionally; greenwashing is no different from misleading consumers about children’s advertising, diet pills, gambling, for example. That’s why we have the FTC and I have tremendous respect for their leadership on the FTC Green Guides and the amount of learning and sophistication they exhibited in the latest update of the Green Guides in 2012.  

Q. Your workshop on The Newest Rules of Green Marketing was a big hit at the Sustainable Brands ‘14. What are they in a nutshell?

A. There are two of them, and they are the focus of my work these days: 1) Provide practical solutions that can help consumers thrive without wasteful use of resources. And 2) Underscore credibility by following the updated FTC Green Guides.  

Q.  You have unique ways to avoid being wasteful. Can you share a couple of tips?

A: I try to be mindful in my consumption, so I don’t mind admitting I take the little bars of soap from the hotel bathroom – and even go so far as to wrap up the wet soap in the little Marriott coaster. Sounds weird I know, but I hate the idea of it going to waste! And living in NYC, there’s always a little something tempting to drag out of the trash. I swear we could furnish multiple apartments from what Upper East Siders put out on Wednesday nights to be picked up by DSNY in the a.m.! What a waste! Too bad I live in a small apartment, or I’d rescue it all myself.

Company: 
J Ottman Consulting

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