EnviroMedia’s Talley Summerlin is taking his kids to the movies. Read on to see if he’ll be stopping for pancakes on the way.
While grocery shopping a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see that some of my favorite natural cleaning and recycled paper products are now “Lorax Approved.” This seal arrived in anticipation of the Lorax’s new animated feature film that debuted last week, dominating at the box office. As a supporter of a sustainable approach to business and as a fan of Dr. Seuss’s eco-prophetic Lorax, it did my heart good to see this particular cleaning product company and the feisty, furry Truffula tree advocate teaming up.
Sure, at its basest level this is a crass co-marketing ploy designed to boost movie ticket sales among “green” consumers while also potentially introducing children (and their cleaning product-buying parents) to a brand that is produced far more mindfully than many others. But, it is a good fit. It makes sense and could do some good – because each time another person considers the impacts of his or her consumption habits, we are all one step closer to sustaining life here on earth.
So imagine my dismay when a short time later I saw a television commercial promoting a well-known, national breakfast chain restaurant (famous for pancakes) starring … the Lorax. Instant disconnect. Now, I love pancakes and everything that goes with them, but I can’t recall a pancake purveyor ever being on any “Top Ten Most Sustainable Companies” lists (free idea: there’s a new business opportunity in there somewhere for the right entrepreneur).
However, I’m no sustaina-snob. I truly want to see traditional companies move themselves and their customers forward along the sustainability continuum (heck, that’s one of the reasons why EnviroMedia launched Green Canary Sustainability Consulting in the first place – to foster this evolution). So I dug around. I wanted to see if maybe this breakfast chain was progressing in some way I didn’t know about. To its credit, the company is using the Lorax promotion as a way to plant 3 million trees. Sort of. Actually, they want you and me to plant 3 million trees. If you walk into one of their restaurants right now, you can pick up a seed-infused Lorax bookmark that they encourage you to stick in the dirt and nurture. It makes for a good, “let’s all do this together” kind of story. However, it does not guarantee that any trees will be planted, let alone reach maturity. Why aren’t they doing the planting and tree management themselves? They appear willing to educate customers on an environmental issue (albeit in a cursory way), but not interested in focusing resources on getting dirty and putting down roots themselves. I’ve worked on tree-planting programs, so I have a pretty good idea why: one action costs less and takes less commitment than the other.
Also, the seeds are for blue spruce and Canadian white pine. Do these species grow well in all the places where the pancake-flipper does business? Are they native or invasive species in those areas? Will they over-draw water in some regions? Maybe the company asked all these questions. If they did their due diligence, they should be putting that message up front. But maybe the tree program itself is a bit of a stretch, more inauthentic window-dressing than a responsible commitment.
The biggest disconnect for me, though, are the processed flour, sugar-packed, Seuss-themed meals the restaurant is pushing at children while the film is in theaters. Are their hash browns in the branded breakfast made from organic potatoes? Are the blueberries in the Barbaloot cone cake sourced from a local family farm? If so, they are not telling us, which would be a missed opportunity to tell a fantastic sourcing story. If not, are these really the dietary choices the Lorax would recommend to our kids? I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s the type of campaign we routinely ask our fellow citizens to put under our Greenwashing Index and Leanwashing Index microscopes – devices fueled by healthy skepticism and hopeful encouragement. The environment. Consumer habits. Healthy diet. These are not distinct, unconnected areas of concern. They are, in fact, intimately linked.
To pay lip-service to, or even authentically act on, one of these levers without paying attention to the others is tone-deaf at best and disruptive of our collective relationship to the planet at worst. Of course, a particular pancake house is not the only brand questionably leveraging the Lorax, it just happens to be the first one I saw doing it so awkwardly. For a full listing of the companies who have partnered with Universal Pictures on the film, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood would be happy to share them with you.
We tend to think of Dr. Seuss’s book as an “environmental” story – it is. But it is much more than that. Above all else it is a “consumer culture” tale, asking us, children of all ages, to consider the dangers of over-consumption, the pitfalls of blindly extractive pursuits, and the folly of built-in-obsolescence. At the end of the day, an all-natural cleaner can certainly be seen as “just another product” as easily as a national breakfast chain can be praised for “at least trying” on the sustainability front. I am not suggesting that companies do everything or do nothing. I am not suggesting companies tentatively entering this space won’t make some clumsy missteps.
I am suggesting, however, that organizations do their homework by asking a lot of questions of themselves, their customers and their critics. And that they balance any new “green” program with an honest nod to what they are not yet doing – while being clear about what their shortfalls are and how they plan to address them moving forward.
I am hopeful that the Lorax’s big-screen debut (and box office momentum) does not dilute his forty-one-year-old message and that we all leave the theater asking ourselves what we will do to speak (and act) for the trees – the trees that generate our oxygen, the paper for Dr. Seuss’s books, the fiber for recycled paper towels, and at least some of the syrup we pour on our pancakes.