Why grey needs to be the next green

25th April, 2014 by Sally Uren

The green movement is facing a branding challenge, says Sally Uren, CEO Forum for the Future. Is it time we learned to love grey?

Green. Verdant, emblematic of life, the dominant colour of nature’s assets, upon which we are utterly reliant. But also problematic when it comes to describing a movement. While we continue to shovel all manner of aspirations for a fair, equitable and resource-solvent world under the umbrella of green, we continue to put many citizens off from doing anything differently at all.

Why? Because, fair or not, green today has baggage. In its report ‘Mainstream Green’, published nearly two years ago, Ogilvy Earth presented one of the first sets of data from mainstream citizens that it thought green wasn’t very normal, and was definitely associated with granola-crunching hippies. Perhaps fair enough in the 80s, but not anymore.

So green has a branding challenge. Many everyday folk can’t get past an expectation of having to give something up, possibly the mental equivalent of going to live in a cave without a candle, and the notion that green living could be desirable, nay aspirational, is, quite frankly, a bad joke.

The ‘green movement’, and you could include Forum for the Future in that broad descriptor, has failed to mainstream green. The global eco watchdogs are still less than 10% of any consumer segmentation, ‘green’ products are expensive and too often don’t work as well as their counterparts. The mainstream benefit isn’t there.

We know we need to reframe green. The conversation needs to be wider than environmental issues. Sustainability isn’t just an environmental story: it’s also about social wellbeing in all its complexity. Key to this grand rebrand is learning to love grey.

Why grey? Surely grey is a dreary colour, not a beacon of vibrancy, not very remarkable. This is all true, but grey also has many, many shades – even making it sexy for some. One of the reasons mainstream society has not fallen in love with green is that there are way too many polarised views. GM is good. GM is bad. Flying is evil. Flying is necessary. Eating meat is terrible. Being a vegetarian is responsible. Polarisation isn’t great for building relationships. The song that goes “You like potatoes” comes to mind…

Of course, every single one of us is entitled to an opinion. That’s what makes us sentient, interesting creatures. But being quite so black and white about issues means that if, as an individual, you haven’t formed a view, or you feel you don’t have enough information to do so, ‘being green’ means adopting a whole set of opinions that you might not understand, never mind agree with. The result? No engagement at all. And the global greenies stay below 10% of the population.

I’m not saying don’t use green at all (and yes, I know, this magazine is called Green Futures – an ongoing debate). But, perhaps, it’s time to accept that we live in a complex, messy system, with multiple dependencies and interrelationships, where there often isn’t black or white, just many shades of grey.

For all of us passionate about the environment and committed to broader sustainability issues, I think it’s time to be more sophisticated in our analysis of what needs to happen to mainstream sustainability. It isn’t about making people feel guilty; it’s about us all becoming better system thinkers. Seeing the whole picture, spotting patterns in order to identify the best action to take, considering different time scales (short term and long term), taking the time to understand others’ view points, accepting that all models are wrong, but some are more useful than others, and, critically, learning to love ambiguity. Which means learning to love grey.

Grey Futures anyone?

Sally Uren is CEO, Forum for the Future. @sallyuren

Photo credit: Nick Woodford; Sydney James/Digital Vision/ Thinkstock by Getty Images

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