Green with Envy


Efficiency products will proliferate, for better or worse.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2009

Recently an acquaintance of mine, who shall remain nameless, gave a diamond engagement ring to his girlfriend. She joyfully accepted the ring. But soon her joy turned to disgust when she learned that her lovely “diamond” actually was a cubic zirconium.

Last I heard, she’d broken off the engagement and was dating her ex-fiancé’s former boss. So it goes.

This incident got me thinking. What the hapless suitor failed to appreciate—aside from the importance of honesty and integrity—is that an engagement ring isn’t just a sparkly crystal clamped onto a piece of metal; it’s an idea. A diamond ring, offered on bended knee, is a gesture, a symbol, and something more. It’s a meme: a cultural archetype that takes on a life of its own, as it’s transmitted from person to person, from generation to generation.

The idea of being “green” also is a meme, and that’s both good news and bad news. It’s good news because memes grow and evolve to suit their survival in human culture. This suggests green values will continue growing as long as they find fertile ground in our culture. Richard Dawkins, who fathered meme theory in 1976, wrote, “Given the right conditions, replicators [including both genes and memes] automatically band together to create systems, or machines, that carry them around and work to favour their continued replication.”1

The green meme2 is bad news for the same reason. Memes grow and evolve to suit their own survival—irrespective of logical considerations like economics and common sense. That means we can’t really control the green meme. The best we can do is to understand it better than my lonely friend understood the concept of an engagement ring.

Cool & Green

In practical terms, a fake diamond serves the same essential purpose as a real one—i.e., to sparkle and look pretty. In a perfect world, the decision to buy a low-cost cubic zirconium instead of an expensive diamond might be considered a sign of economic wisdom. But in our world it represents, at best, cheapness. Only a real diamond projects prestige and permanence.

The same thing is true for efficiency-related products. The most obvious example is the Toyota Prius, which has succeeded because a large number of car buyers perceive it as attractive, intriguing, prestigious … in a word, “cool.” Granted, it’s a geeky kind of cool—the green kind! Every Prius driver I know is proud of the vehicle, and is eager to brag about its fuel economy (48 mpg in the city/45 on the highway). But that pride is about more than just fuel economy; Prius buyers line up to pay a premium for the perception that their $23,000 car is greener than the next driver’s car.

Contrariwise, a college student I know recently paid $1,800 for a 15 year-old Civic hatchback. The car serves him well, but he gets absolutely no props for driving it, even though in real terms it’s vastly greener than a new Prius. Not only does his 1994 Civic go farther on a gallon of gasoline (47 mpg city/56 hwy), in effect he’s recycling a discarded vehicle whose manufacturing emissions already have been amortized over its 15-year life span. Plus, in principle he could spend thousands of dollars planting trees or buying carbon offsets, and still be money ahead over the Prius. Yet in the old ’94 Civic, he’s perceived as cheap, poor or both. It’s the cubic zirconium of green cars.

In the meme pool, perception is everything. By definition, a meme is a cultural idea that spreads through imitation. The green meme flourishes whenever someone buys a cool, new Prius, but it dies when someone climbs into the empirically greener alternative, the used Civic. That’s because nobody wants to imitate the dude in the rusty Civic, but lots of people wish to own a Prius.

Meme Marketing

Few green products have achieved anything like the market penetration of the Prius. A rare exception is the compact fluorescent light bulb. CFLs have proliferated because the funky, futuristic spiral of a CFL has become ensconced in American culture as a cool product, and regular incandescent bulbs now look old-fashioned by comparison. As a result, Americans bought nearly 300 million CFLs in 2007, and sales continue surging.

Apart from CFLs and Priuses, commercializing the green meme has proved to be frustratingly difficult, because most green products don’t look cool; in fact they don’t look like anything at all. From weather stripping to programmable thermostats, once a green product is installed, it’s quickly forgotten. Likewise, customers who sign up for special utility programs involving conservation or renewable energy have nothing to show for it, except ink on a bill or pixels on a display. For such products, the green behavior is effectively invisible, and therefore it’s effectively impossible for others to imitate it.

The green meme will generate the most sales for tangible and visible products, but only to the degree consumers perceive those products as effective, valuable and cool. This suggests the next products to achieve commercial success via the green meme might be rooftop PV modules (see “Net-Zero Neighborhoods”) and electric vehicles. These unmistakably cool products are ideally positioned to ride the green wave. At this stage they might be impractical or expensive, but early adopters already are buying them, and their neighbors are watching with a growing sense of envy.

The real trick for the utility industry will be figuring out how to capitalize on the green meme with products that are inherently less tangible and visible—such as energy-management systems and retail choices that support renewable power development and reduce the user’s carbon footprint.

One approach might be to cultivate the green meme with overt symbols representing the green product. For example, a utility might package a networked home energy-management system with a minimalist installation of solar modules or even a cool-looking backyard wind generator. Such generators might not deliver much empirical value, but they’ll generate envy and imitation among the neighbors. They’ll make the package sparkle. They’ll make it cool.

This factor—coolness—will separate winners from losers in the market for green products. Economic value notwithstanding, a product’s success will depend on its ability to capitalize on the green meme, and deliver a diamond instead of a dud.



1. Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene, Notes to 1989 edition, Oxford University Press.

2. The term “green meme” defines the increasing value placed on environmentalism in Western culture. It’s related to the broader anthropological term “Green vMeme,” used in spiral dynamics theory. See Cowan and Todorovic, “Spiral Dynamics: The Layers of Human Values in Strategy,” Strategy & Leadership, January 2000.