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Green is the New Black
Organic apparel is all the rage. Here are four case studies showing how using green items can help boost a brand.

It wasn’t long ago – really, just a few years – that eco-friendly apparel seemed like one of those nice ideas whose time was far into the future. It was akin to such fascinations as plug-in cars and wind-generated power plants. However, much like these other “green” trends, the demand for such products has finally begun to take hold today. In the promotional products world, suppliers offering shirts, jackets and hats made from recycled plastic, coconut fiber, bamboo and organic cotton are quickly becoming plentiful. The trend is so front and center that Coca-Cola, one of the best-known brands in the world, has even begun selling branded T-shirts at Wal-Mart made from recycled plastic bottles. Companies that want to be portrayed as eco-friendly have quickly realized that the ad specialties they use in promotional efforts are equally reflective of their commitment to the environment as the amount of energy their manufacturing plants use or the volume of carbon emissions they release into the environment.

"Organic apparel is growing in popularity because consumers are looking for easy ways to clean up the environment,” says Lynn Syman of the Organic Trade Association. “By choosing green products of all types, they are reducing pesticide runoff, toxic exposure to farmers, mill workers and ultimately everyone. We all live downstream.”

The OTA estimates organic apparel sales will increase by 40% by 2011 compared to last year. In 2006, the last time it tracked purchases, sales were $203 million. Many distributors agree that last year, clients began asking about “green” apparel, but it wasn’t until this year that the tipping point occurred, where actual demand for the products began to pick up. “Every industry seems to be asking for it,” says Scott Alterman, co-owner of The Icebox, a promotional products distributor. “There is a lot of attention around these issues, and all of these companies are starting to get involved.”

For Karen Rankin, president of Quality Life Promotions, a marketing consultancy, living off of the land is already a part of her life. For the past seven years, she has stayed in a tent in the mountains when she makes her sales calls at West Carolina University – albeit a tent with carpeting and a full office. “I live green and sell green,” she says. “I haven’t found a ton of customers yet, but it’s going to hit pretty hard in the very near future.”

For many companies concerned about their eco-friendly image, it already has. Here are four examples of marketers who have already wholeheartedly opted to embrace promotional products that even Mother Nature would approve of.

Honest Foods, Honest Promos
Having already helped create the successful Kashi line of organic foods (which was purchased by Kellogg in 2000), Andrew Aussie set out to see if he could make lightning strike twice. As cofounder of Honest Foods, Aussie is looking to build a brand like Kashi where he worked for 11 years, serving most recently as the vice president of marketing.

Understanding that image is extremely important when laying the foundation for a natural foods brand. Aussie asked consumers to help come up with some unique looks for the year-and-a-half-old brand of snack bars and cereals.

Honest Foods posted a contest on Brickfish.com, from February 26 to May 30, asking consumers to submit designs for its organic cotton T-shirts. Through April, the contest received 1.4 million engagements (defined as entries, votes, views and reviews). More than 1,700 design entries had been submitted. “We chose an organic cotton T-shirt because it is in line with our company values,” says Aussie. “We’re not advertising that the shirt is organic on the site. When they get it, they will see it’s organic and they will appreciate the sentiment. They will let us into their circle of trust.”

Honest Foods, which uses the mantra “a darn good line of all-natural whole foods,” loaded up its brand design elements at Brickfish.com and let consumers go nuts. Some of Aussie’s favorites include a design where one half of the shirt is entirely covered in granola, and one that has a happy tractor driver basking in rays of yellow sunlight. The winner will receive a $500 prize, $100 Whole Foods Market gift certificate and an Honest Foods goodie basket. “No one is going to retire on this,” he says – although they might be slightly less hungry: Everyone who entered got a free granola bar.

He expects to print up about 10,000 shirts this year to be used at trade shows, sampling events and distributed to Whole Foods Market employees (they are allowed to wear such promotional items while working).

The shirts cost 40% more than do typical shirts, but he says the trade-off is worth it. “It would be easy to sneak these things through if you choose to, but it all comes down to who you want to be as a company,” he says. “There are some things we do that aren’t so great, like the fuel associated with shipping the product from place to place, but this is one place we can make a difference.”

Blue Cross Tries A Different Color
Health care provider Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mass–achusetts is not only concerned about the health of the thousands of people covered under its plan; it is concerned about the health of the planet. To drive home the fact that it is serious about sustainability and environmental consciousness, it handed out a series of green promotional products during its yearly sales summit last fall. One of the items was an organic long-sleeve T-shirt.

“We have seen a lot of interest in green marketing solutions from the health care space,” says Ben Grossman, director of green marketing and sustainability practice for Grossman Marketing Group, a promotional products distributor that worked with Blue Cross. “A number of different surveys have shown that Americans want to purchase from and work for companies that are socially responsible. It is increasingly important that they take the environment into account.”

This spring Grossman put together its first catalog of green products, and the company has received a string of orders from clients like Team Darfur and Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm the Glover Park Group – both of which ordered shirts that were a blend of organic cotton and recycled polyester and rayon.

For Blue Cross Blue Shield, it was about showing its sales force that the organization wasn’t just paying lip service to the environment. The 400 shirts and 100% post-consumer recycled padfolio showed they were serious, says Grossman. “They told me it was a priority. They wanted to drive home the message that they are on top of the green movement and are working to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Even though it can cost “several thousand dollars difference going green,” Grossman says it was worth it for Blue Cross Blue Shield. “It needed to send a value-laden message to its constituents. By following through with the message with its apparel, it was able to underscore the environment.”

Kleber & Associates Cleans Up Its Act
Eco-friendly home building items are a burgeoning market. Kleber & Associates, in Atlanta, has recognized and embraced this niche of manufacturers who produce more efficient plumbing hardware, recycled countertops made from wood previously used from barns and pickle barrels, and other such products.

However, when working with clients like Nichiha, a fiber cement manufacturer that was recognized by Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue for the amount of water it recycles through its manufacturing process, there is more than a little pressure to make sure that this integrated marketing communications firm is equally as eco-friendly.

This year the company was planning on planting trees, but the drought in the Atlanta area caused executives to rethink this strategy. It opted instead to help clean up local parks in suburban Sandy Springs. The company’s 20 employees plus friends and family members formed a community action team. Their uniform was an organic shirt that read: “Turning over a new leaf. Green Team member 2008.”

“We try and be as paperless as possible, so turning over a new leaf demonstrates that,” says owner Steve Kleber. “We live, breathe and teach this kind of thinking. We’re not just preaching it, we’re living it ourselves.” For New Year’s, the agency gave out aluminum water bottles that read: “Drink all you want without getting trashed.”

The Icebox is the distributor for Kleber’s programs. Alterman notes that clients and companies from all sectors of the economy are now looking to promote themselves as green organizations. The Icebox recently signed on The Varsity, a local drive-in restaurant, which created organic shirts as well as recycled cinch sacks and pens to promote its frosted orange beverage that tastes like a Creamsicle. “It was cool to see a fast-food restaurant known for their hot dogs and French fries get into the green trend,” Alterman says. “Sometimes it is more about having environmentally responsible traits rather than being a brand known for its green practices.”

Kleber notes that because the green trend has become so prevalent, companies need to be cautious of appearing as if they are “greenwashing.” “There are companies out there,” he says, “that promote themselves in a way that is not representative of what they are actually doing.”

He says companies need to work hard to not have “listener fatigue come into play.” Using green promotional products helps, Kleber says, because they prove to consumers that your interest in the environment extends to everything you do – even down to the items you use to promote and market your company.

Organic Food Promoted With Green Shirts
At the 33rd Winter Fancy Food Show in San Diego, tens of thousands of people descended upon the show floor to see the profusion of new foods and beverages on display. Blue Horizon Organic Seafood Company was only too proud to be there to show off its latest offering – organic spring rolls. The nation’s largest supplier of organically raised shrimp introduced four new SKUs prepared for consumers who want clean, hormone-free and antibiotic-free seafood.

Picking the right product to promote the three-year-old company was essential. Blue Horizon looked to organic cotton shirts. “For us it was an obvious choice. We’ve always made our T-shirts with organic cotton,” says Markham McGill, director of brand marketing for Blue Horizon Organic. “The reason we need to do this is because cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in terms of pesticides and chemicals. It is, without a doubt, a crop worth supporting organic practices for. You could say it ranks right up there with organic seafood!”

Blue Horizon ordered organic cotton shirts for the Fancy Food Show as well as Expo West. The shirts read “Blue Horizon Organic” and “Sustainable Seafood for Our Little Blue Planet.”

John Battendieri and Tim Redmond, the founders of Blue Horizon, were pioneers of the green movement in the sixties, says McGill. “They launched brands such as Eden Foods and Santa Cruz Organics before it became au courant. This could explain why they always make sure every part of their company is green and environmentally friendly. They give away 100% organic T-shirts and even serve samples on biodegradable cups and forks made of corn at trade shows.”

By Kenneth Hein
COPYRIGHT © 2008 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.

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