Friday, November 19, 2010

Why RAN's rainforest-safe children's books campaign might not mobilize consumers to take action?

Rainforest Action Network (RAN) released yesterday a new report grading 11 of the largest children’s book publishers in the US. Their grades were given based on their paper policies and purchasing practices. It was also accompanied by a consumer guide, asking consumers to choose books from publishers who are committed to rainforest protection.

Both the report and the consumer guide follow a report launched by RAN in May, which found that a large number of kids’ books sold in the US are now being printed in Asia using paper that is closely linked to the loss of rainforests in Indonesia.

This is a very important campaign and we applaud RAN for their efforts to ensure that books will be printed sustainably and won't be contribute to the destruction or Indonesian rainforests. This campaign is clearly aiming at mobilizing consumers to buy rainforest-safe children's books this holiday season (and in general), but we have to ask ourselves - is it really effective? is it really change consumers' behavior?

First, let's look into what RAN's guide include. According to their press release,RAN’s guide recommends that consumers buy from industry leaders that have taken action publicly to decrease their forest and environmental footprints by creating time-bound commitments to phase out controversial Indonesian paper fiber and paper suppliers. The recommended companies include Hachette Book Group, Candlewick Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, MacMillan, Penguin Group (Pearson), Scholastic and Simon & Schuster. (the last three publishers, by the way, took part in the Green Books Campaign).

Some top publishing companies have yet to take public action to protect Indonesia’s rainforests. These companies have failed to make public commitments or adopt purchasing policies that improve their environmental footprints and ensure the papers they buy are not linked to Indonesian rainforest destruction. RAN’s guide recommends that book buyers avoid these companies this year: Disney Publishing Worldwide and HarperCollins.

So this is the message. Loud and clear - buy books published by the recommend publishers and avoid the ones that got a Failed grade. What tools RAN is using to get the message out to consumers? You got the following:

- A pocket-size shopping guide, which can be downloaded and printed. You can also share it with friends on Facebook and tweet it.

- There's the full report you can read online: Rainforest-Safe Kids' Books: How do Publishers Stack Up?

- Rainforest-Safe Book Database

- 'Roar At the Store' week - from December 6th-12th, hundreds across North America will hand out rainforest-safe guides in front of their favorite bookstores.

This is an impressive campaign. But will these tools help the campaign to meet its goals? Will it mobilize people to take action and buy only rainforest-safe children's books? I'm not sure about it and there are couple of reasons that makes me worry that the campaign won't be as effective as it could be:

1. The first step in mobilizing consumers into action is to get them aware of the campaign and its messages. RAN makes an effort to make it social network friendly and to have presence in bookstores during the first week of December, but I wonder how many consumers will actually hear about it.

First, a growing number of consumers buy online (online spending this holiday season is expected to grow by at least 9% according to analytics firm comScore), and the chances they will hear about the campaign are relatively slim. Second, even though RAN will have presence in hundreds of stores during the first week of December, they will still be able to reach to only a small percentage of the buyers.

What can be done? The best option would be to collaborate with book retailers such as Amazon, B&N, Indigo, Borders and the American Booksellers Association. If even one of them would agree to collaborate with RAN, there's a much better chance to reach a much greater number of consumers both at brick and mortar stores and online.

But I guess that's not going to happen as no retailer would agree to call his customers to avoid books they're selling. It just doesn't makes sense for them. So if we're looking at RAN's options realistically then I believe their best option then is to go viral - a viral campaign, just like what Greenpeace did with their 'Ask Nestle to give rainforests a break' campaign is the only way to get the word out effectively and reach a large number of consumers.

2. The most problematic part is how to mobilize consumers into action. OK, so you got people to hear about the campaign and let's assume many of them really relate to the message and care about the rainforests in Indonesia. Will it be enough to convince them to prefer books published by "good" publishers and avoid ones published by "bad" publishers? I doubt.

And the reason I doubt is that according to the rules of green marketing there's a good chance it won't work. Now, you can wonder why an activism campaign should look into rules of green marketing - RAN is not a company and it doesn't try to sell anything. That's true, but at the same time it tries to influence consumers' behavior and get them to buy a "green" product over a "non-green product", which is exactly what green marketing is all about.

One of the basic rules of green marketing, according to green marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman, is to avoid trade-offs and if you can’t, make sure the cost to consumers of the green attribute doesn’t outweigh the product’s benefits.

Let's look for a moment at the equation here. The cost is very clear - you need to avoid certain books, even you wanted to buy them in the first place because of their publisher's practices. Instead you're being asked to buy books from a list of rainforest-safe books of publishers who got a Recommended grade. The benefit is that by doing that you're supporting publishers who help to protect Indonesia's rainforests.

Would this benefit be enough to persuade consumers to pay the price? Not to most of the consumers. This is unfortunate of course, but that's the reality. For the majority of the consumers you need actual benefits and not just the good feeling of doing the right thing to outweigh the costs. These benefits can be for example a discount on the recommended books, an hard to resist deal such as buy two recommended books and get the third one for free, discount coupons, etc. Without such benefits that will reward consumers for taking green actions you will be able to persuade only a small percentage of consumers to do the right thing.

What can be done? Again, the best way is collaborating with retailers, but since it's not realistic, maybe RAN should check with the recommended publishers how to create an hard to resist deal or provide consumers with discounts (maybe through websites like groupon). Another way to incentivize consumers is to find a green sponsor that will give a coupon for every purchase of a recommended book (RecycleBank is an inspirational example of this concept).

Another way to change the equation is to reduce the costs. The shopping guide is really small and informational, but still it's a hassle to check every book with the list of the publishers on it (especially when each one of them has many imprints). How about an App, where you can scan the ISBN of the book on your mobile phone and get an immediate YES/NO recommendation? This can also be a convenient way to provide coupons or discounts.

I'm sure that such an App will significantly increase the number of consumers that will use the guide and take it into consideration, as it will lower the cost they need to pay for taking a positive green action.

In all, we wish RAN all the best with this important campaign, but because of its importance and the effort they already put into it, I do hope they'll take into consideration some of the comments made here and will make this campaign as effective as it can possibly be.

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Promoting Sustainable Reading!