Grower Benefits of Green Branding By Joli A. Hohenstein

Once at retail, it takes a lot more than the color of a plant’s leaves to make a product truly “green.”

Demand for eco-friendly brands continues to increase in horticulture and beyond, and growers have responded by placing increased focus on local and organic programs. But what makes a retail plant “green” is more than the color of its leaves — the soil, fertilizer, container and other inputs all contribute to the consumer’s perception of sustainability. And when the container comprises up to 10 percent of a grower’s total cost, choosing an often pricier sustainable container can be a challenge.

Plastic containers are preferred for their price and convenience, but can plastic be branded as eco-friendly? More importantly, will garden center customers notice and choose these more sustainable pots and packs over their conventional counterparts? Several growers think so — and their retail buyers are getting on board.

“Most buyers, especially grocery buyers, are very sensitive to it in a product,” says Phil DeGoede, owner of DeGoede Brothers in Sumner, Washington. “We are a sustainable business practice, and so are our trading partners.”

DeGoede produces the bulk of its annuals in containers made from recycled water bottles, branded rEarth by McConkey Co. The intent is that by the 2016 growing season, 100 percent of their 4-inch, 3.5-inch and 4.33-inch production will be in the sustainable container line.

“We’re promoting sustainable in all of our materials,” says DeGoede. “It’s a line item on all of our invoices: rEarth pot.” That gets people talking, even if they don’t know what it is, he says. But more than a mere talking point, sustainability has become a selling point.

Marketing Sustainability

“We’ve always tried to be good stewards of the environment, so using a product like rEarth just makes sense,” says Steve Haston, COO of Colorama Nursery, Azusa, California. “We prefer to use it; it goes with our business model — we’re Veriflora certified sustainable.”

The company also has a CCOF USDA certified organic program, and using a sustainable container adds even more appeal to that program. Having used rEarth for their annual color packs and 4-inch annuals, they’ve now expanded into their certified organic vegetable and herb program.

Of course with the veggie market comes a few unique challenges, not the least of which is tagging. “A missing label is a lost sale, especially on something like a tomato,” says Haston. The solution: They asked McConkey to engineer its veggie packs with a slot to lock labels into the packs. Ditto for its 4-inch certified organic veggies and soon, its 3.5-inch certified organic herbs, also manufactured with a special tag lock on an injection-molded pot.

These herb pots brought even more creative sustainable manufacturing to light: They’re made out of water bottle caps, rather than the bottles themselves. The injected format with its different mold needed a different consistency of plastic, so the custom product was born.

Of course the challenge with sustainable, especially custom sustainable pots, has always been that consumers might profess to want more earth-friendly options, but what they don’t want is to pay for them.

“It was a seamless decision for us,” says DeGoede. “Cost isn’t a factor, and we’re doing something sustainable.”

That’s something you can count on for budgeting even in the leanest of times, says Haston. “There’s more consistency in pricing year to year, month to month; because with recycled water bottles you’re not affected by price changes.”

POP Potential

Custom point-of-purchase materials come part and parcel for every rEarth user who wants them, though pull-through promotion is not without its challenges. “If you’re dealing with the big boxes, you have to abide by their rules,” says Haston. “We’re working on it and looking into solutions with McConkey and our customer base.”

DeGoede, which in addition to their production greenhouse operates a retail garden center, has taken custom POP to its customers as well as used it in their own store. Program components included an 8.5×11-inch glossy as well as a rack talker grommeted to racks. Eye-catching and attention-getting, the message was clear: These plants from DeGoede are in sustainable pots made from water bottles! The challenge came in keeping the separation of church and state, and preventing intermingling of sustainable and traditional packs.

Even so, there’s no question the market’s looking for sustainability. “Our customers are very aware of it,” says Haston.

An Elite Club

“We produce quite a few high-volume items in rEarth,” says Haston. “Last year alone we saved over 12 million water bottles from going to the landfill.” Colorama, DeGoede and other rEarth users who hit the 1 million mark are granted status in McConkey’s Million Bottle Club, providing even more awareness for their sustainable efforts.

Million Bottle Club members are announced and recognized every year at AmericanHort’s Cultivate show in Ohio, giving inductees the opportunity for an award presentation and photo at the company’s trade show booth. A press release is distributed to media throughout North America, and winners are announced on the company website.

Million Bottle Club members receive a special award statue to display in their company offices, as well as window clings, a plaque and branded attire made from recycled bottles to make customers aware of their unique achievements.

“It’s part of all of our PowerPoint presentations,” says DeGoede. “Whether I’m talking to grower, buyer, store manager or director, I’m in spring kickoff meetings now, and it’s part of all of them.”

It’s something, say these growers, which should touch every part of your business to be successful. Marketing and brand extension tools make a huge difference in positioning and visibility. “It’s raised awareness with the people we sell with,” says Haston. “As far as Colorama is concerned, there is nothing but advantages to this.”

Joli A. Hohenstein

Joli A. Hohenstein is marketing & PR specialist for Pen & Petal Inc., a marketing, advertising and public relations agency for the green industry.

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