Monday, August 11, 2008

 
posted by Jason @ 9:59 PM
In a weekend where I met Perry Farrell and spent 20 minutes talking to Saul Williams, the most interesting interview I got was with the owner of a backpack company. The story of how we met is a lesson in the murky waters of modern marketing theory and the new desire by corporations to portray themselves as green.

Leading up to Lollapalooza, I was bombarded with communiques from various PR firms offering interviews with the lesser-known bands. In the flurry of digital activity, I almost missed a somewhat confusing invite to a pair of events so laden with sponsor names in their titles I couldn't even figure out what they were the first time I read the message. The official titles were "The Music Lounge Presented by Metromix.com at Hard Rock Hotel Chicago for the 2008 Lollapalooza Music Festival" and the related "Eastsport Cafe and Spin Acoustic Stage." This was apparently some sort of VIP event, although the press, including random government employees moonlighting as bloggers, was also welcome. Never having been invited to any kind of VIP shindig before, I decided to check it out, even when I found out that the Hard Rock Hotel was a 20 minute hike from the press tent at Grant Park.

Once on scene, I found controlled chaos on two floors of the Hard Rock. Various cool-looking people in designer garb with three-figure haircuts milled around, listening to music, eating some very appetizing food in the cafe, and--depending on their level of importance in the music world pecking order--being "gifted" (a new verb!) with various goodies ranging from jeans to free tattoos to backpacks, which you could fill with other items you'd been gifted with. The lower floor featured the aforementioned "Eastsport Cafe and Spin Acoustic Stage," which turned out to be a place to get free food and drink and listen to a few live tunes. The whole thing was sponsored very prominently by something called Eastsport Natural and the Ben Jelen Foundation. I had no idea what was going on, except that it seemed to be some sort of mass exercise in branding and consumerism, and that Eastsport was very clearly trying to up its green cred.

The level of branding, in keeping with the overall theme at Lollapalooza (brought to you by AT&T!) was intense. I wanted to follow up on the green angle, so I asked for more info. The Fiji water given to every diner in the cafe (label carefully positioned to face outward) was green, my PR handler assured me, because the company is "carbon negative." The Fuze drinks were green, too, now that they had switched from that environmentally pernicious glass bottle to a new, easier to recycle plastic bottle. Eastsport was the most prominent green corporation there with a new line of green bags to push, with a portion of proceeds benefiting the Ben Jelen foundation. Ben, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, was promoting his own personal green brand, too, with 6-foot-tall pictures of his face lurking around every corner.

I was ready to call bullshit greenwashing on the whole thing and leave, but the promise of free food and margaritas was too much for me. Plus, it was air-conditioned, and that first day of Lollapalooza was a bit too much like a day in Manchester, TN, to pass up a chance at climate control. I agreed to do a few interviews so I'd have something to keep myself occupied and not feel like too much of a mooch. We arranged that I would come by on the following morning to speak to a few folks. On my arrival, I stood near a tall, muscled man covered in tattoos who looked so much like a slightly younger Henry Rollins that I had to sneak a peek at the back of his neck to make sure that the telltale Rollins barcode wasn't there. Looking for a quiet spot to do interviews, I was directed to the now empty room where the private afterparty concerts were held. The only place to sit was on the stage, so I plugged in my laptop and settled down on a riser.

My first interview was with Bruce Starr of BMF Media, the promotion company that arranged the event. He explained that these VIP rooms give the glitterati a chance to get away from the masses and have a meal in relative peace, and that they were common at events like Sundance but relatively new to the music festival world. This was just one of a series of Eastsport Natural and Spin Acoustic Cafe VIP events being held at music festivals around the country, with others at festivals including SXSW. The camping festivals haven't yet reached this level of cultural importance, apparently, which is why I'd never seen one of these before. And he assured me that this was indeed a very green event, what with the recyclable plastic bottles and carbon neutrality and green backpacks and all.

Next up, I got to spend 20 minutes with Ben Jelen (pronounced yellen). He's a strikingly good-looking man in his mid-20's, with soft features and long black hair. I'm pretty sure that this is what Michael Jackson wanted to end up looking like, even though it didn't quite work out that way. He's also a lot smarter than the blog posts on his foundation's website let on. After reading his exclamation-point laden missives about compressed-air cars and the benefits of organic gardening, I hadn't really expected a mature conversation, but it turns out that he's got a degree in biology from Rutgers and knows his environmental stuff backwards and forwards. This is not a guy who's jumping on the green bandwagon, or a guy who's greenwashing. Instead, he's an astute marketer and a bit of a realist. In his own words, "I think the most important things are the consumer vote. Where you put your money in a capitalist society is going to speak loud and clear as to what you want and where you're going."

To further his desire to see the world become a better place, Ben puts his capitalist money where his mouth is. It started a few years ago, when he had early financial success with his first album. He gave a chunk of change to the NRDC, enough that they took notice and had some conversations with him. Perhaps inspired by that, he started the Ben Jelen Foundation in January of this year, with a four-point approach (education, lobbying, humanitarian relief, and investments in clean energy) that he hopes will approach the whole problem. So far, the young foundation has only raised about $12,000, but he's also partnered with Fiji water to send about a dozen New York youth to Fiji for some first-hand environmental live-and-learn activities, and he has the new partnership with Eastsport Natural, which is donating 10% of its proceeds to his foundation. Color me suitably impressed. I was beginning to get the impression that this event wasn't just so much greenwashing after all, despite the celebrity hoo-hahs and the suspect claims of carbon neutrality from Fiji water and the questionable green cred of Fuze's new plastic bottles.
But none of this really explained the Eastsport backpack connection to me. Why was a low-end bag manufacturer with 50-foot displays at every Wal-Mart in the country wrapping itself in green, and what do $20 backpacks have to do with rock music? I was assured that my final interview with the "Eastsport rep" would clear things up. As I sat there on the stage where Sharon Jones had given a private VIP-only show the night before, now my private interview room, I pulled together a few questions.

IMG_1307
Ben Jelen (in hat) and Joseph Janus.

None of these questions ended up getting asked, though, because when I met the Eastsport "rep," I was more than a little surprised by who showed up. My interviewee was Joseph Janus, the Rollins lookalike I'd been standing next to earlier, and he wasn't a sales rep, he was the principal of the company. Beyond that, he's also the man behind Fearless Management, the artist management firm responsible for getting Ben Jelen signed on to Madonna's Maverick record label. All of a sudden, the dots started to connect.

Janus has a classic American success story. He skipped high school entirely to skateboard, but after an injury at the tender age of 13 he started JMCO, a successful blue jeans company. He eventually sold that and continued on in the world of fashion and marketing with stints at Calvin Klein and Guess. Along the way, he also picked up the Eastsport backpack company from its founder, and now the company is the number one backpack manufacturer in the world, according to Janus. But there's a problem with his manufacturing business, and he knows it: Eastsport's current manufacturing process just isn't sustainable. He's blunt about the issue: "This is a company that makes...affordable plastic backpacks...we ship like 800 million backpacks. Now, the problem with that is how do you get 800 million people to go from buying a $24 backpack to a $50 or $60 backpack? It's very difficult to be green."

But just because it's difficult, or perhaps because it's difficult, Janus hasn't given up or given in to the greenwashing I originally suspected him of. He's researched the issues thoroughly and is determined to be a part of the solution the best way he knows how--through marketing and consumer education. But after a career as a marketer, he didn't want to fall into any ethical traps. "You'll see things that are marketed as 100% organic cotton, but with the lining and the filler and everything else, it's actually 20% organic cotton. It's a big lie and it's a big marketing ploy and I didn't want to do that with Eastsport," he states defiantly. He continues on to say that "what we decided to do was come up with a line of backpacks that instead of being $19.99 or $24....was 100% biodegradable. I didn't worry about organic, because organic is not what's important [ed. because of the lack of regulations surrounding "organic" labeling]. What's important is biodegradable [and] where are these backpacks being made. They're not being made in China, they're made in the US. They're being shipped local to source. They're going into warehousing that's close to that district. I really went 100% in a way that would make this as environmentally friendly as possible, with telling the truth and not using it as a marketing ploy."

Janus, like the young environmentalist Ben Jelen whose career he helped launch, is passionate about the environment but also a realist. As he puts it, "I would love to be in a position where I could say we only make natural backpacks. That'd be great. But I'd be out of business." So Janus, the skateboarder/fashion designer/music manager/green backpack manufacturer, is breaking all the rules, seeking out biodegradable plastics manufacturers, bringing manufacturing back to the US, and trying to spur demand for green manufacturing components to a level where economies of scale can kick in and these products can be cost-competitive with more traditional ones. Right now, it's a losing proposition, financially speaking. He says that after donations to the Ben Jelen Foundation, investments in alternative energy in China, and the added expense of green components for his bags, his company doesn't make any money on the Eastsport Natural line even though it has a price tag that's 2-5 times as much as his plastic backpacks. "Because," he says, "the big, ugly story of green is how affordable is it?"

And that's the crux of this weekend. Lollapalooza is capitalism in all its ugly glory, rock and roll devoid of sex or drugs, a money-making machine as sinful and sanitized and finely tuned as the new Vegas. The festival, despite what appears to be a heartfelt desire by top management to be greener, is still all business. The stages are sponsored by MySpace and Bud Light, the entire event is underwritten by a phone company, even the green area is sponsored by Whole Foods. Despite the fact that the 3-day event cleared almost $10 million in 2007, according to Spin, any greening has to pay for itself, with the result that it's hard to tell if the festival is green or greenwashed. With a finely-honed cash cow like this, no one is taking any chances. But we need risk-takers to get out of the business-as-usual mentality, and in the vacuum of leadership from above, it's entrepreneurs like Janus who are taking charge. Eastsport, surprisingly enough, is taking a flier on the green line of bags. This isn't greenwashing, this is an entirely earnest experiment, one that combines the marketing of a young new environmentalist filling a void--the complete dearth of musicians not named Michael Franti willing to tackle the environment in their art--with the marketing of a new product line that isn't making any money, all in the hopes that the two of them together can convince consumers to go green and stay green, not just give in to green marketing.

Janus wraps up with some optimistic thoughts. "What I'm hoping is that the consumer starts wanting green products. If the demand is there, then I have to make more green backpacks and I have to find a way to make them less expensive. I can't wait for that to happen....I'm very interested in seeing a healthy planet become a reality." Let's hope he succeeds, and that he can stay true to his vision of a green product that lives up to its marketing. And as for the "carbon-negative" water...well, I'll leave that for another day.

Full disclosure: I was offered a bag, and agreed to take it, but they were all gifted out so I left empty-handed. That said, we're probably going to be giving some of the new Eastsport Green bags away on the site in the near future.


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