Relationships are rarely easy, but this one sounded like a partnership made in heaven. The parties complemented each other well, and the partnership wasn’t based in superficialities. We’re talking about the relationship between the Sierra Club and Clorox’s line of Green Works cleaning supplies. The partnership, in which the Sierra Club lends its name and environmental halo to the company in exchange for an undisclosed portion of sales was, not surprisingly, scrutinized from the beginning. But the commitment seemed genuine and the products passed muster. Yet a new story last week in Ad Age tells us that despite an estimated $20 million in sales and endless exposure, behind the scenes the relationship remains controversial, at least among the environmental group’s own members. Ad Age notes, “four of the Sierra Club’s 64 chapters outright opposed the association. And it’s not hard to find a blog by outraged former Sierra Club members decrying the partnership.” In fact, one chapter insists it was suspended as a result of its criticism of the partnership, but the Sierra Club argues there were other mitigating factors.
Whatever the truth, one key lesson is that “creative” partnerships need to be forged with both internal and external constituencies in mind. It seems the Sierra Club carried out due diligence to ensure the product line that was to carry its seal truly lived up to its promise. But the environmental group may have failed to apply the same due diligence to engaging its own vociferous members. When there are such strong nonprofit and corporate forces at play, there will also be strong opinions, particularly in an arena as highly contentious as the environment. We’re still in the nascent stage of environmental product endorsements, so both partners must tread carefully to avoid accusations of “selling out” or greenwashing. The greater the engagement of key stakeholders- including internal ones- in the conversation, the more apt they will be to air their concerns and find a common ground.