Macro/Micro: Green translations

My cousin Suzy says her family recycles because her nine-year-old son shamed her into it. He watched the movie WALL-E at a friend’s house, and now he’s paranoid that we’re destroying the planet. He’s not the only one. While I personally think we’re quite a ways from the trash-covered earth portrayed in the film, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that events such as the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill are destructive. While many blame BP itself for the destruction, I’m of the opinion that BP, albeit recklessly, was only working to meet market needs. If Americans weren’t driving gas guzzlers, Americans wouldn’t need so much gas. I won’t go for a second round of this blame game, but I’m probably not the only person who believes that spill was a hell of our culture’s own making.
In fact, I know I’m not the only person who feels that way. Many of my clients do as well. Most likely, so do many of your clients, if you work for a language service provider (LSP). And if you’re on the buyer side, you still may have noticed changes at your own employer geared toward creating a more environmentally sound workplace. It’s about more than turning off the lights when you leave for the day or drinking coffee out of a real mug instead of a Styrofoam cup. Big business is becoming more and more cognizant of its role in preserving our environment. Some say it’s from an honest awareness of the corporate carbon footprint. But my cousin Suzy isn’t the only one changing her enviro-think due to someone else. According to a 2010 study from Cohn & Wolfe, a global communications agency specializing in the environmental sector, the largest segment of US shoppers willing to pay more for products labeled as environmentally safe are single men in their twenties and thirties looking to impress the ladies. In the United States, peer pressure is the principle reason why people buy environmentally safe products. By and large, consumers of what most people call “green” products tend to have surplus cash, and they’re not afraid to spend it if it makes them look trendy or “up-on-it” to other people. For Americans without surplus cash, though, “green” is just a tie-breaker. All other things — such as product availability and price — have to be equal before the average American will purchase the “green” product over the less sustainable one.
On a global front, though, this is a different scenario. Americans still care more about “getting a good value” than they do the environment. In Cohn & Wolfe’s 2010, pre-oil-spill survey, 100% of US respondents noted that “good value” was a driving force in how they made purchasing decisions. But in countries where environmental changes have already begun to have an impact outside the movies, environmental factors are number one. Take India, for example, where water pollution has become a national reality. 96% of Indians base purchasing decisions off of the seller’s environmental impact. In fact, in his book The Coke Machine, journalist Michael Blanding blames environmentally unconscious acts for Coca-Cola’s lack of success in the country. Shortly after Coke reentered India in 1991, villagers in Mehdiganj, Nandlal, accused the company of dumping in the Ganges, a river where the water, according to the World Health Organization, accounts for the death of 1.5 million children every year. The accusation that Coke’s chemical dumping is at all responsible for these deaths is extreme, but the taint of the accusation is enough to most likely keep Coca-Cola from ever dethroning local competitor Thumbs-Up. In fact, in an effort to change the market, Coca-Cola India has since used rainwater harvesting to replace 17 times the amount of healthy water it takes from the areas where its plants are.
Water isn’t the only issue in India. According to Cohn & Wolfe, Indians are also concerned about deforestation, which is also a predominant issue in Brazil. 98% of Brazilians say it’s important for them to know that the company they’re buying from cares about its customers, which includes caring about the environment. 67% of Brazilians also said the environment would be a greater stand-alone factor if environmentally safe products were more available. This 67% cited limited selection as the reason why they don’t buy as many “green” products as they would like. This isn’t too different from India, where 72% of respondents also pleaded limited selection. The first macro-force at work here globally is therefore one of market creation. The need for greater availability in “green” products leaves room for many new clients to begin exporting or to increase their number of exports, particularly clients working in the agribusiness and chemical sectors. As new and expanding exporters reach into new markets, this means new languages become involved and more translation will be done. By learning where our environment is at its worst, we can predict the consumer behavior that will drive the translation market for this sector in the future.
The even greater macro-force affecting our industry is sustainable procurement. Corporate America is waking up, and the wake-up call is resonating on two different levels. First, companies are beginning to realize the carbon footprint they create and the responsibility that comes with it. Some are coming to realize it in sudden, undeniable ways — like BP, whose gas stations, as reported by North Carolina paper The News & Observer, continued to see sales down as much as 40% three months after Deepwater Horizon. Some are realizing it due to internal changes in the organization, such as Brown-Forman, where a combination of new hires and resource shifting between brands helped Jack Daniel’s become the world’s first zero-impact whiskey. A few US-owned businesses are increasing their environmental responsibility due to changes required by their Scandinavian business partners, whose Danish and Norwegian governments regulate a business’ environmental impact, including how that impact stretches out into its dealings with its partners.
The majority of corporations, though, are like my cousin Suzy. Someone they care about deeply — in her case, her son; in the corporate case, the customer — is forcing the business to change. In order to keep up, to save face like the men who go green for women, these businesses must be or must pretend to be sustainable. Take Clorox, for example, which in 2007, “was willing to pay almost $1 billion for Burt’s Bees because,” according to Louise Story in the New York Times. “Big companies see big opportunities in the market for green products. From 2000 to 2007, Burt’s Bees’ annual revenue soared to $164 million from $23 million. Analysts say there is far more growth to be had by it and its competitors as consumers keep gravitating toward products that promise organic and environmental benefits,” noted Story. It’s pretty much a given that bleach is an environmentally destructive chemical, but through the purchase of Burt’s Bees, Clorox was able to guarantee its future in a pro-environment future.
As the Times article goes on to explain, for a couple of years, this was big business’ standard micro-reaction to the macro-force of environmental awareness. L’Oréal bought Body Shop. Colgate-Palmolive bought controlling stock in Tom’s of Maine. At this same time, Clorox looked to diversify its original offerings by introducing the Green Works line, just as L’Oréal did by introducing its line of sulfate-free hair care products. The list goes on of how big business either bought small business or broadened its own offerings to win green dollars. Just as increasing environmental awareness was the macro-force that caused these micro-changes, macro-changes on the corporate level will affect our micro-reactions in the land of localization. You see, things have shifted again. Big business is no longer trying to etch its way into a market through acquisitions and diversification; it has moved to supplier responsibility and certification. For while the majority of Americans who go green do it for social reasons, those who do it for environmental ones are militant. And as the WALL-E generation grows up, the number of militants grows exponentially with them.
In 1997, BP became the first oil company to publicly acknowledge its responsibility in causing and preventing climate change. From that moment on, the company was praised for its corporate social responsibility (CSR) — right up until April 20, 2010, when 205.8 million gallons of crude oil began to leak into the Gulf of Mexico. In a post-BP world, people may not accept environmental policies at face value. The age of effective greenwashing is dead. Those who buy because they care really do care, and they will hold you to it.
This is what brings me to certification, and this is where this macro-trend starts to affect our industry. The trend now is not just responsibility on the corporate level, but responsibility throughout the entire supply chain. And whether we think of it that way or not, translation is part of our clients’ supply chains.
Consumers want to see responsibility not just from the companies they buy from, but from the businesses those companies buy from as well. This is especially important for international businesses working in India, Brazil and the other countries we’ve discussed. While the American market is getting there, the foreign market already is there. Like Coca-Cola, if American brands want to compete abroad, they have to put their money where their mouth is.
As a result, Walmart forced its top 20 Brazilian suppliers to sign the company’s “Pact for Sustainability” in a June 23, 2009, summit. In this pact, the suppliers, which included Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, promised to reduce their use of plastic and to refrain from deforestation while creating their products. Their choice was to sign the pact or to stop selling their products in Walmart, the largest retailer in the world. Right or wrong, Walmart forced its suppliers to cooperate.
How much longer will it be before the translation industry is forced to cooperate? The environmental certifications already exist. LSPs can have environmental or unenvironmental practices, just like any other company. Our product may be words, but it takes power to generate those words and get them to our clients. Do we keep our laptops turned to “balanced” or to “power saver”?  Do we turn off the computer when we leave? And when your LSP buys new computers, what happens to the old ones?
As business-to-consumer clients become more and more regulated regarding their own carbon footprints, the mark LSPs leave on the world may one day impact whether these companies are able to do business with us. Walmart has already started requiring environmental certification of its suppliers whenever certification is available. While not yet a requirement, environmental certification is also preferred for vendors at Starbucks, SAP and H&M. Many US municipal and state requests for proposals now have sections where they ask bidders to detail their environmental practices, use of Energy Star utilities, and environmental certifications held. Which one of your clients will be next?
Environmental management certification for LSPs is already available. It’s just that abashedly few of us have it. My company, In Every Language, is the only LSP certified as a B Corporation, which is a certification not just for environmental practices, but for CSR as a whole. Only three LSPs are certified by Green America: Lazar & Associates, Oregon Translations and Green Translations. On an international level, ISO 14001:2004 is available for environmental management, but I only know of four LSPs that have it: Yamagata Europe, Eco Trans, Intrasoft International and Wolfestone Translation. So basically, with three certifications available, only eight companies worldwide are meeting this growing client need. And while I’m sure I can speak for the other seven when I say we’re happy to keep the business for ourselves, just as our clients face a responsibility to their customers to ensure environmentally responsible sourcing through the supply chain, we face the responsibility of making it easier for them. Obtaining certification is part of standard operating procedure for a US-based woman or minority-owned LSP; certification should become a standard for “green” LSPs. This is the micro-action we must take in light of the macro-trend. The customer-centric LSP owner puts the needs of his or her customer first, and for more and more of our customers, this is the up-and-coming need.