Getting real – why our manufacturers and environmentalists need to work together

Dick SearleBack in the late 1980’s, you may recall the first wave of a perceived need for environmental-friendly products. The new dawn began creeping over the horizon for marketing managers everywhere.

The first reaction for many companies was a twinge of commercial fear and a worry for the status quo. Many others, however, began licking their lips at the prospect of mining the new situation in order to create wider profit margin.

It was commonplace – every week – to attend product launches at which a new environmental solution – usually launched against a hapless  ‘unenvironmental’ situation or industry- was being unveiled. Quite apart from the actual merits of the product itself, the understanding was that all green products were a class apart and needed to be priced as such.

I now forget the rationale – but to those who lived through counter culture ideas of 50’s and 60’s the idea that an alternative world needed to be more costly than Main Street seemed laughable.

However, the last laugh may yet be still on us. The premium-price green product strategy is slipping but the mind set still lingers. Worse still, the green marketing schtick continues to imply that somehow we live in a two-tier material world; the ordinary one – just getting by – and then the virtuous more expensive one, where everything could be greener – we just have to pay more.

It’s time, once again, to get real. Thankfully – and quite apart from the wider green movement now not knowing its own direction or beliefs – some governments, manufacturers and strategists are beginning to think straight.

Matthias Machnig, for one. He is the minister for economics for Thuringia, one of the regional states which makes up the Federal Republic of Germany. He has credentials in both industrial and environmental policy and he recently argues that industrial policy cannot be a policy on its own but must be integrated with environmental policy.

After all, taking a little thought, it is clear that good manufacturing already integrates and gives good environmental performance into its operations and products. How could it not? Why – in a competitive, regulated, visible and transparent market economy – would any manufacturer make an unenvironmental product?  It’s not good business.

Another fundamental question to ask is: How does a free market regulate itself?   The plain answer is the consumer. Choice and pricing are clearly part of the answer and social contract; command and control and subsidy are generally not.

Therefore, the greatest discipline – for manufacturers and most environmentalists together – is effectively to engage the first cog in the economic wheel, namely the customer/consumer on whom the whole system turns. Our politicians seem to be very far detached from this truth and from us, their customers at this moment, but that’s another story.

In the UK we seem to have a political culture that has bought into the idea of a separate, special and alternative environmental industry; one that has been set apart and often subsidised in order to create new environmental technology for new environmental markets.

This was mistaken. Moreover, it won’t work. In fact, the opposite direction needs to be encouraged for prosperity’s sake. Our environmentalists need to take a leaf out of Germany’s book and get fully engaged with UK manufacturing and vica versa. Our UK industrialists and manufacturers need to embrace the open, questioning and innovative dynamic of the environmental movement. UK Government needs to help both sides work together.

Great environmental solutions are part of great manufacturing. Great manufacturing is disciplined to give customers and society the goods and services they want and need at optimum cost. Our policy and strategy should have the two working together as closely and profitably as possible.

Thanks again

Dick Searle