Greening Our Vices

Step into the Theo Chocolate plant in Seattle and two things strike you. First, the place is filled with candy-colored manufacturing machines that seem straight out of Willy Wonka's fictional factory. Second, there are "organic" and "fair trade" labels slapped onto every sack and box, from ingredient to finished product. "The only thing we don't have are fair-trade working conditions for the Oompa Loompas," jokes owner Joseph Whinney.

Bragging about your business's green streak or social awareness isn't a new phenomenon. But now politically correct marketing is attempting to put a new spin on products that have traditionally fed some of our less healthy appetites. "A lot of companies are jumping on the green band wagon," says Ed Stafford, author of "Energy Efficiency and the New Green Marketing" and a business professor at Utah State University. The reason: being green is red hot. Still, can labeling anything eco-friendly help a product sell? It's hard to quantify the selling power of such marketing ploys, but companies that bill themselves as green can have a distinct advantage.

That's exactly what 150-year-old McCormick Distilling was looking for when it debuted its 360 Vodka this past summer. Billed as the world's first eco-friendly premium spirit, it comes in a bottle made of 85 percent recycled glass. Hanging from the bottle's neck is a recycled and biodegradable envelope that drinkers can use to return the reusable cap to the factory.

"Vodka is such a saturated field that you have to be unique and different," says Ed Pechar, the distillery's chairman. "With our packaging and our message, we're on the cutting edge of that." The goal: to do the right thing and to attract upscale consumers willing to pay $28, close to the $33 price of Grey Goose, a comparable high-end vodka. "It would be disingenuous to say that we're creating this product without marketing in mind," Pechar says. "But we think we're doing a good thing while marketing this idea to the economy." To prove his point Pechar says he has "greened" nearly every part of 360 Vodka's product cycle, from the construction of a new energy-efficient distillery to using hybrid trucks for delivery.

For Kettle Chips, that commitment took a different form: America's first potato-chip plant certified by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, which celebrated its opening last month in Beloit, Wis. The new factory has 18 wind turbines on its roof that generate enough energy to produce 56,000 bags of potato chips each year; the rest of the factory's energy use is offset with wind-power credits. Doing so is essential to saving the environment, the company says, as well as building the brand. "I think the Kettle customer is a box turner who reads the back and then connects with us," says Tim Fallon, president of Kettle Foods North America. "It's part of the brand's fabric."

Kettle Chips has been in business for 25 years, and as the company has gotten greener its numbers have gotten better. Despite flat growth in the potato-chip category, which grew less than 1 percent during the year ending June 19, 2007, sales of Kettle Chips grew by 43 percent. It's the top-selling brand of natural potato chips in both natural and mainstream grocery channels. "We just try and do the right thing," says Fallon. "Its part of our DNA." Kettle is optimistic about how that approach will play out in the future: the Wisconsin factory is built to double its potato chip output without increasing its carbon footprint.

Among the other products offering feel-good green is "SimCity Societies," the latest iteration of the popular computer game by Electronic Arts. Users can indulge both their inner sloth and their eco credentials as they slouch over their computers picking a sustainable energy source to maintain their virtual cities. And if they don't pick something like hydrogen, natural gas or wind farming, they face the threat of global warming in the form of heat waves and droughts.

And then there are other kinds of feel-good products. Take Solar Sensations, a solar-powered vibrator that is the buzz of the eco-blogosphere. The device comes with a solar panel that has to be charged outdoors--not the best place for so intimate a product. While it was greeted with initial enthusiasm, many retailers have stopped carrying it. "There is the danger of these things being so tangential and unrelated that it does create some skepticism of the product by the consumer," says Nicholas Eisenberger, managing principal of GreenOrder, a New York-based marketing firm whose clients include GE, GM and Office Depot. "The risk you run is getting so silly that it doesn't have meaning anymore." Or that the product you're touting isn't really doing anything to make the planet a better place.