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Clean Up Greenwashing

Sept. 1, 2008
Don't muddy the waters of a great market opportunity with half-baked promotions of not-so-green products.

I recently sat through an executive panel discussion sponsored by one of the electrical industry's biggest manufacturers in which that company's executives attempted to slap a green label on a large swath of their company's product lines. It wasn't that this manufacturer wasn't a very reputable firm or didn't have a bunch of products that could save energy. It just seemed to me that they were a little late to the party in the green market and were promoting the energy efficiency of their products more as a marketing angle for what's become a very trendy corner of the electrical market, rather than because that was the primary function of the products.

At the very least, it was a mild case of what's called “greenwashing” — stretching the truth a wee bit about the energy-saving capabilities of a product or about the commitment a company has to the green market.

You may want to write off greenwashing just as a harmless marketing ploy that business owners and consumers have come to expect from marketers trying to latch onto the Next Big Thing to sell more of their products. I beg to differ. Greenwashing can undo much of the good that companies or associations with a legitimate energy-saving product or service are trying to provide to customers. Electrical contractors, facility maintenance personnel, electrical engineers and other end users or buying influences have been burned before by supposedly green products, and their B.S. radar is on full intensity when a salesperson starts off his or her pitch by saying something like, “You may have to pay more now, but it will save you big money in the future.”

Your customers have every right to be skeptical about green products. They may have been burned by faulty electronic ballasts in the 1990s when the market was flooded with unknown offshore products that didn't last. And during the same era, the electrical industry also saw some end users milk utility-rebate programs with phoney paperwork for lighting upgrades that never happened. One creative contractor even laser-printed counterfeit labels for electronic ballasts and slapped them on old electromagnetic ballasts, claiming rebate credit for the “upgrade.”

It's a shame, because a few bad apples can spoil so much of the good that the green market offers the electrical wholesaling industry. I think it's one of the greatest sales opportunities of our time, and I hate to see any amount of greenwashing prevent already skeptical end users from taking the green market seriously.

As you will read in “The Greening of America” (page 22), a spirited group of lighting manufacturers from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, Rosslyn, Va., are spearheading an industry-wide effort called “Enlighten America” to tell CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives who can write the checks for lighting upgrades about the proven cost savings that energy-efficient lighting systems can provide. These executives are talking about the type of green that these folks understand. Their efforts will provide some much-needed substance to green market opportunities in the electrical business — in contrast to the Madison Avenue “greenwashers” trying to make a quick buck.

Andrea Herbert: A Giant of Her Time

I just wanted to take a moment in this column to mention the passing of Andrea Herbert, former chief editor of Electrical Wholesaling and my boss and mentor during my early years with this publication. She passed away on July 28 after a battle with cancer (see obituary on page 72). Andrea wrote “Times & Trends” on this page for many years and was respected throughout the electrical business for her expertise in strategic market planning. She always had time to talk with EW readers who called or wrote in with questions on market planning and won numerous editorial awards for the magazine's annual Market Planning Guide. Andrea was a mentor for many of us on EW's staff and we will miss her.

About the Author

Jim Lucy | Editor-in-Chief of Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing

Jim Lucy has been wandering through the electrical market for more than 40 years, most of the time as an editor for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing newsletter, and as a contributing writer for EC&M magazine During that time he and the editorial team for the publications have won numerous national awards for their coverage of the electrical business. He showed an early interest in electricity, when as a youth he had an idea for a hot dog cooker. Unfortunately, the first crude prototype malfunctioned and the arc nearly blew him out of his parents' basement.

Before becoming an editor for Electrical Wholesaling  and Electrical Marketing, he earned a BA degree in journalism and a MA in communications from Glassboro State College, Glassboro, NJ., which is formerly best known as the site of the 1967 summit meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin, and now best known as the New Jersey state college that changed its name in 1992 to Rowan University because of a generous $100 million donation by N.J. zillionaire industrialist Henry Rowan. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Jersey Guy happily transplanted with his wife and three sons in the fertile plains of Kansas for the past 30 years. 

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