Providing the temptation to publicise it is resisted, green marketing could turn a feel-good initiative into a programme with measurable environmental benefits.
It's a few years since the first green marketing bandwagon collapsed under a tidal wave of criticism - not least allegations of hype, exaggerated and misleading claims and a backlash of consumer cynicism. Perhaps more importantly, the consumer seemed unwilling to pay extra for green products.
Now, as companies struggle to come to terms with the implications of last year's Kyoto 'green summit', one of those bandwagons - tree planting - is gaining a new lease of life.
Trees are something of an environmental magic bullet. They look good.
They absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen and clean pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide from the atmosphere. Corporate tree planting is hardly new (organisations such as the Woodland Trust have been partnering companies in promotions for years). But the emerging notion of 'carbon neutrality' is turning what was once a soft-focus, feel-good initiative into a real programme, with measurable environmental benefits.
It's now possible to quantify just how much carbon an organisation spews into the atmosphere each year and how many trees need to be planted to suck the same amount of carbon out of the air. The average car produces about one tonne of carbon emissions each year. That's the equivalent of five oak trees. Using such simple formulae to guide them, companies can now achieve a double whammy. By planting the requisite number of trees, they go beyond merely reducing their carbon emissions to become 'carbon neutral'.
The first two UK organisations to become carbon neutral are advertising agency J Walter Thompson (JWT) and Imagination, a design consultancy and events organiser. Imagination is planting 6,285 trees a year to 'pay for' the carbon it emits through activities such as heating and lighting its offices, road and air travel. The two businesses are being helped by Future Forests, a non-profit organisation, which takes on all the number-crunching, finds the planting sites, arranges the planting, and uses the money raised to secure matching funds from the likes of the National Lottery.
Future Forests is also working with organisations such as motor racing outfit Formula 1 to develop globally accepted standards for carbon neutral accreditation and it is talking with organisations such as the AA, RAC, Shell, BP, and British Airways about carbon neutrality programmes. 'The idea of carbon offset is really catching on,' says its managing director Daniel Morrell. 'We will get to the position where a company that isn't carbon neutral will be odd.'
But can initiatives like these ever rise above the inevitable charges of bandwagoneering? Vauxhall recently abandoned a scheme to 'plant a tree for cleaner air' after focus groups revealed consumers to be 'very cynical' about it. JWT and Imagination have avoided gimmickry charges by not publicising their tree-planting involvement. The real priority remains emission reduction, says a Ford spokeswoman. Carbon emissions from 54 of Ford's new Ka (built on a Ford Fiesta platform) are equivalent to that of one 1976 Fiesta, she says. Other companies are also taking a more serious approach. Toyota is not only researching ways to reduce engine emissions, it's also funding genetic engineering research 'to improve the air-cleaning capabilities of various plants' as part of its 'Forest of Toyota' project.
Mazda UK is attempting to turn carbon neutrality to marketing advantage by offering to plant five trees for every Demio (its new urban runabout) it sells. 'This can hit the spot in marketing terms,' says managing director Tim Tozer. 'Our target customers are concerned about pollution - they are sick of pollution alerts - but they don't want to lose their personal mobility. This enables them to stand in the pub and say they are clean without feeling guilty. It's better than putting another three ads in the media and it raises the issue in a way that will benefit the Mazda brand.'
The plus for Mazda is that because it mainly sells small cars, a carbon neutral platform gives Tozer the chance to put the environmental spotlight on its rivals. 'Nobody would deny there is a business motive to this,' Tozer says. 'We don't have the infrastructure of Dagenham hanging around our neck and we don't sell many executive gas guzzlers.'
Yet Mazda's commitment is very limited: only one model, for only one year, after which individuals can stump up the £15 cost for themselves, if they want to. Tozer says he's using his Demio offer to test the water.
'Carbon neutrality is going up the agenda,' he says. 'We are reviewing how to take it forward so as to avoid the charge that this is a cynical marketing gimmick. For example, we may standardise the proposition on all our cars.' But he admits his offer probably won't sell him any extra cars.
Carbon neutrality may well be rising up the agenda along with other environmental initiatives, but making marketing mileage out of them remains as difficult as ever.