In the Pacific Northwest, talking about going green can be an invitation to a fight. The region mixes many of America's most fervent ecologists with thousands of lumber industry people who believe their mills were shut down by tree huggers. It's hard for a company to stay friends with both sides, particularly when "lumber" is part of the company's name.
Parr Lumber, a division of The Parr Co., faced that dilemma in 2006 and 2007 as the green building movement was taking off. Eventually the Oregon-based operation concluded the best way to promote being green was to ignore the word entirely.
The result was GET REAL!, a program that aims to inform Parr's customers about green alternatives rather than preach to them, and at the same time commit the company to cleaning up its own act. The information side combines a website with product tags, resource centers, brochures, posters, and T-shirts to get the message out. The commitment side ranges from installing rooftop solar panels to tracking drivers' habits.
"We wanted GET REAL! to have a relaxed focus and be positive, not intimidating," says Jennifer Swick, advertising and marketing director for The Parr Co., which is based in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro and sports operations in 35 locations throughout the Far West, including 22 Parr Lumber yards. "...Green has a negative connotation with some of our customer base, so we needed to be careful.
"The perception is that the Northwest is environmentally conscious," Swick says. "But we also have a lot of extreme environmentalists, which can put a negative connotation on what the movement is about. And a lot of other people rely on logging for their livelihood. So we've had clashes in which those two groups ...have rubbed each other the wrong way."
As a result, "We intentionally didn't want to have green in the name of the program," Swick says. "We wanted to find a different word. It's more about having a healthy earth and a healthy home."
Swick eventually found an alternative to green from a reality TV show in which a master chef persuaded a pub to reinvent itself in part by promoting the fact it served "real gravy" from traditional ingredients rather than dishing up some artificial concoction. The restaurant's campaign for real gravy even extended to having workers wear T-shirts with the slogan–another idea Swick borrowed for GET REAL!
Employees' reaction to the campaign produced several shades of worry, in part because the Pacific Northwest has such a rich lode of ecologically minded citizens that workers expected their green IQ would be challenged as soon as the GET REAL! signs went up. "That created an intimidation level for our employees," Swick says. "How could they create a program and be as educated as some of these people are? We needed to create a program they could be comfortable with."
Parr's key expertise on green was entrusted to a team that asked vendors to provide detailed information on their products. Parr then identified roughly 200 in-store items and several hundred more products from its yards that it felt contributed to energy efficiency, cleaner air, cleaner water, or environmental sustainability, or were made at least in part from recycled materials. Often it relied on other groups' certifications, such as whether lumber carried the Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative tag.
Parr listed those products via a special website it created, http://getreal.parr.com, and through bright green bin tags for in-store items and stickers on doors, windows, and appliances. It also created a logo whose stylized tree harkens back to art deco iconography rather than to other groups' green labels or what Swick calls the "bold, manly stamps" often associated with pro-oriented building products.
That soft sell is intentional. "We didn't attempt to tell people what green meant and how green to be," Swick says. "I think people really appreciated that, and consumers, at least in our neck of the woods, do research. They have their criteria. ...That really simplified [the creation process] for us.
"One of the things I was most pleased with was how it was embraced internally," Swick adds. "Our employees really got involved. We didn't expect them to know about every product that had a GET REAL! label. All they needed to know was how to direct employees to the information on our website. They also wore the T-shirts. But it really became something they got actively involved in, like recycling programs at our stores."
Since the launch of GET REAL!, Parr has gotten even deeper green by creating a program for builders: the High Performance System. It's a turnkey framing service that Parr says leads to homes with advanced framing techniques, highly efficient weatherization materials, less waste, and improved cycle times. Parr claims its system will reduce a home's energy costs as much as 40%. "We thought that a contractor might use it to promote to the customer–create a marketing message for them," she said. Thus, as with GET REAL!, the High Performance System both advertises and builds Parr's credentials as a trusted source of green expertise.
Parr launched GET REAL! in November 2007 and saw an immediate response. "The branding was like wildfire," Swick says. "It felt like, overnight, we got traction with this campaign, in which people remembered seeing our buses. ... Media started using as a resource. They had used us as a resource before for building things, but never for environmental stuff."
Now that GET REAL! has started, Parr faces the challenge of keeping it running. Teams have to vet new products to determine if they qualify for a place on the GET REAL! website. Tags have to be replaced, and there's the extra work of moving those tags when products get shifted among shelves. And Parr has to keep track of its internal operations to make certain that it meets its public commitments. Nearly two years after its launch, "We're still fine-tuning our processes," Swick says.
But already, it's clear to Parr that GET REAL! has signaled a sea change in how Parr views itself and thus how it operates.
"It used to be our purpose to get a pile of lumber onto the job site," Swick says. "Now we feel it's our purpose to contribute to the building community. We wanted to shift the paradigm of building to be a resource to builders."