What’s the secret to effective green marketing? Honesty.

Reusable systems are undeniably a win for humans and the environment. And, as it turns out, they can also provide a unique opportunity for marketers… along with a few challenges.

To highlight some of the lessons learned by businesses that are disrupting entire industries with their innovative reuse models, Roundpeg interviewed Shaun Zaken from Boomerang Water and Lindsey McCoy from Plaine Products. We explored some of the struggles and major wins they have experienced while navigating the complex world of green marketing to identify any common themes.

Consumers and governments are increasingly holding companies accountable for their packaging waste, so reuse systems and other business models that “close the loop” on waste have emerged as the most sustainable solution.

Boomerang Water was founded by Jason Dibble in Davidson, N.C., as an innovative reuse solution for establishments looking to shift away from single-use plastic water bottles. Another disruptor in single-use plastic bottles — this time targeting the bathroom — is Plaine Products. The company’s two founding sisters set out to eliminate single-use plastics from the personal care industry by providing non-toxic products in aluminum containers that can be returned to the facility, reused, and redistributed. Founded in Cincinnati, OH, Plaine Products was the first of its kind at its inception in 2017.

Across industries, It’s clear that embracing a plastic-free purpose inherently bolsters a company’s credibility when it comes to sustainability, but there are still a few things to keep in mind to market reusables effectively and ethically.

Show that you understand the complexity of the problem — and how your purpose addresses it.

Every company these days expects to be applauded for simply using recycled materials, but Plaine noted some of the other issues with recycling (you know—beyond just getting people to throw things in the right bin). For instance, a major downside of recycling plastic is that it’s usually “downgraded” every time it’s recycled, resulting in less valuable material with each use, so it can only be recycled a couple of times. It’s just that reality that led Dr. Max Liboiron, director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) in Newfoundland, Canada, to make the pithy but discouraging remark that “Recycling is like a Band-Aid on gangrene.

Lindsey McCoy, CEO of Plaine Products, knows that the problem extends far beyond recycling, which is why she spreads awareness of plastic pollution as an environmental justice issue. Plaine Products works with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to support the residents of Cancer Alley, a stretch along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge where the predominantly minority population suffers from dramatically higher rates of cancer and respiratory diseases. These health impacts result from the concentration of more than 150 oil refineries, plastics plants, and other chemical facilities in that area.

Producing recycled plastic uses two-thirds of the energy required when using raw materials, but only 9% of plastics produced globally have ever been recycled. In stark contrast, approximately 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use, and producing a recycled aluminum can requires only 5% of the energy it takes to extract and process virgin aluminum.

Not only is bottled water contributing to the plastic pollution crisis—poisoning human and environmental health—but the truth is that most of it is just glorified tap water. In fact, bottled water is even less regulated than tap water and often sourced from drought-plagued or distant and marginalized communities.

The disturbing reality is that it takes 1.63 liters of water to make every liter of Dasani. Yeah, you read that right. But the good news is that Boomerang Water is changing the game.

Boomerang Water demonstrates a dedication to long-term solutions by identifying the problem — in this case, the single-use model — instead of simply demonizing one material. The company created an on-site purified water bottling system that can clean, purify, fill, and cap reusable glass or aluminum bottles at the point of use. This eliminates the plastic waste and the resources necessary to manufacture single-use bottles and the emissions produced by transporting them.

“The distribution channel has been completely upended, and as such, no one’s product is fresher, healthier, or more sustainable than ours. Any aisle, any bottle, any material — we are more sustainable.”

Don’t forget that reusables present a unique marketing opportunity.

While it’s indisputable that reusing is infinitely better when it comes to environmental impact, it also has unique marketing benefits that were not lost on Zaken, who is responsible for Boomerang Water’s branding efforts.

“We are localizing and customizing water — we can actually message with our water.”

From colleges and coal mines to luxury hotels and golf courses, Boomerang Water has big plans to eventually provide customizable bottle designs and on-site purification/reuse systems to any establishment that currently relies on single-use bottles.

The company’s first customized branding endeavor was dedicated to the community that has been supportive of Boomerang Water since day one. To celebrate Earth Day and engage the local community, Boomerang Water asked K-12 students in and around Davidson, N.C., to submit designs for a commemorative Earth Day bottle. The winning design (see image, right) was selected by a local artist and used on 2,000 custom bottles that “live on in the community because they’re being reused and put back into our system,” said Zaken. The hand-drawn buildings in the design are representative of real buildings around the community.

Plaine Products approaches the marketing power of sustainable products from a different angle. With an overwhelming majority of global travelers currently seeking to reduce their environmental impact,  Lindsey realized that many — including her — would rejoice at the thought of a green filter for travel booking websites. The proposed Airbnb Green Filter identifies homes offering amenities — such as composting, recycling, renewable energy services, and plastic-free or reusable products — that are sought by more eco-conscious individuals. To demonstrate its commitment through action, Plaine Products launched a campaign to push for this green filter. If you support the idea of an Airbnb Green Filter, you can sign the company’s open letter to Airbnb here.

Packaging waste is a major red flag for consumers.

When it comes to sustainable packaging, Plaine Products knows actions speak louder than words.

“We try — by showing the changes we’ve made with our boxes or talking about lessons that we’ve learned — to demonstrate that we’re not perfect.”

Lindsey McCoy finds that the most successful social media posts are usually the ones providing a direct view into the reuse process — such as photos of the bottles being collected, washed, and redistributed. She also emphasizes the importance of encouraging customers to ask questions and leaving those conversations out there for other people to learn from.

Packaging is typically the first part of your brand that customers engage with, so it’s essential that it reflects your brand’s values. If a brand has made sustainability or environmental impact a central part of its value proposition, it won’t go over well to include unnecessary packaging waste, regardless of material.

Be specific and honest… even when your competitors are not.

Plaine Products adheres to ethical marketing standards, avoiding common marketing practices, such as retargeting, that can be problematic. Lindsey lamented that it can be a losing battle, competing against other companies with less strict moral codes. “We tried to avoid Google ad words but finally had to cave because other companies bought it.”

The challenge with green marketing is that words like “sustainable” and “natural” aren’t regulated, so they can be used to mean essentially anything. That’s why specific language is more credible, but it can be hard to avoid wordy explanations, given the complexity of environmental issues.

“Those words mean so many different things to so many different people,” said Plaine. “Natural, chemical-free, sustainable — they’re so loaded and everyone has different priorities of what’s most important to them.”

Another challenge is the confusion between “plastic-free” and “single-use-plastic-free.” Plaine Products employs the latter, providing plastic pumps and encouraging customers to use the same pump with each new (well, reused) bottle.

When Boomerang Water was faced with its own ethical marketing challenge, the company stuck to its values and took the high road. According to Zaken, many competitors claim that their bottles are BPA-free or have a BPA-free liner, but Boomerang Water followed Ball Corporation’s (the aluminum supplier) advice against making that claim because it cannot be ensured 100% of the time, depending on where the water is sourced.

Committing to 100% verifiable claims benefits your company by providing peace of mind, ensuring legal protection, and fostering consumer trust. That’s the level of stringency we need to see more often in green marketing claims.

Use your messaging to educate and empower, rather than discourage, customers.

The marketing content from both companies emphasizes educating and empowering consumers to be a part of the solution. That was clear as Lindsey described her feelings about the term “zero-waste.”

“We try to focus on progress, not perfection. For instance, I don’t love the term zero waste because it sets an unachievable goal. We like to focus on doing what you can, starting in one place, and expanding from there,” she said. “Don’t try to do it all at once.”

Spreading awareness of environmental issues while also acknowledging the struggles your company has faced and overcome in its efforts to be part of the solution can be seen as the ultimate display of authenticity. It’s right for your company, and it makes good marketing sense.

Stephanie Monmoine is a corporate sustainability consultant who leverages the power of business and marketing to advocate for environmental issues and ensure that the most desirable options for consumers also happen to be the most sustainable. To combat greenwashing, she helps companies understand exactly what sustainability means to them and identify personalized strategies for maximizing their positive impact and building credibility as a green brand.

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