House of Marley Is Blazing a Path for Sustainable Electronics, But Do Enough Consumers Care?

38 years after the reggae pioneer's death, his name lives on in eco-friendly speakers, turntables and headphones

House of Marley pledges 'to carry on Bob Marley’s legacy of love for music and planet.' - Credit by Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: House of Marley, Getty Images
Headshot of Robert Klara

In 2009, the descendants of Bob Marley gathered at the Miami home of Cedella Marley, one of the late reggae singer’s daughters, over plates of Jamaican fried fish and corn. But there was far more in the offing than lunch. The Marley brood had assembled to meet with an executive from Hilco Consumer Capital, a firm that specialized in resurrecting deceased brands or, as in this case, deceased celebrities who were themselves brands and creating lucrative licensing deals with them.

Which was just what the family needed. Marley’s prodigious talents had never included financial planning—his failure to write a will touched off acrimonious disputes over his $30 million estate following his death in 1981—and the singer’s likeness has historically been among the most pirated in the world. The Hilco deal began to put a stop to all of that.

“We want our legacy and our name to be firm in the world,” said son Rohan Marley at the time.

HOM sells a range of bluetooth speakers, including the No Bounds portable (in red) for $59.00.
Courtesy of House of Marley

That was 10 years ago. Though Hilco is no longer in the picture, the merchandising of Bob Marley has become firm in the world. A joint venture called CAA-GBG (Creative Artists Agency and Global Brands Group Holding Limited) now puts together licensing deals for the family, and its corporate entity, Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Limited, now owns all the rights once held by Marley, including his name, image and likeness. (It’s hard to get a fix on exactly what Marley’s estate is worth today, but most published reports put it in the neighborhood of $130 million.)

The licensing agreements that have emerged from this structure collect tens of millions in royalties on everything from apparel to beverages to lifestyle products. There are, for example, Bob Marley skateboards (licensed by Sector9) and One Love ice cream (made by Ben & Jerry’s). There is a Marley Coffee, too, whose varieties include “Get Up, Stand Up.”

In April, New Age Beverages reupped a deal to sell CBD-infused beverages under the brand name Marley Mellow Mood. And if getting genuinely mellow is your game, there is Seattle-based Marley Natural, which sells varieties of cannabis and a host of smoking and vaping accessories.

And then there is House of Marley, an audio brand whose 100 products are now for sale everywhere from America to Germany to Dubai. Started by Marley’s son Rohan, House of Marley sells a range of audio components—speakers, turntables, headphones, earbuds. Of course, so do any number of more established brands. What differentiates HOM, aside from the obvious link to an iconic musician, is its ecological commitment.

HOM's audio components are made with sustainably harvested bamboo.
Courtesy of House of Marley

Committed to peace and the planet

While most electronics brands encourage consumers to recycle their components at the end of their service lives, HOM has upped the ante by manufacturing its products with sustainable materials before they even go home with consumers—and claims to be the first audio brand to do so.

“From the very beginning, HOM set out to [be] different and to design a product with sustainability in mind,” said director of product design Josh Poulsen. “If you look at our products, they’re visually different. We have a lot of front-facing materials like wood and fabric. We’re being as creative as we can.”

HOM components are indeed heavy on the woods, all of them certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. That cork in the Marley earbuds? Sustainably harvested. Upcycled fabrics serve as speaker cloths. And where you do find synthetic components, HOM has reduced the environmental impact by using materials such as nontoxic silicone, wood-fiber composite resin and reground plastic. The packaging is 100% recyclable, too. For good measure, HOM also supports One Tree Planted, which combats deforestation by putting saplings back into the ground.

In fact, the packaging is at the center of HOM’s latest bit of news, released last month, that HOM’s speakers sold through Best Buy will carry an exclusive new package design that touts the brand’s “sustainable sound.” The packaging was a response to two conditions as HOM and the retailer saw them: first, that while food and beauty brands have awakened to the sustainability message in recent years, electronics generally have not—as Poulsen puts it, the electronics aisle is still a “sea of plastic”—and second, that while HOM has instituted sustainable practices from the start, consumers were largely unaware of the fact.

The partnership with Best Buy advances HOM’s cause in more than just visibility and distribution; it’s a kind of marketing marriage between two brands intent on getting their green messages out.

Best Buy is itself committed to eco-responsible practices, having announced in 2017 plans to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% and revealed this summer that it aims to cut emissions by a full 75%. Because HOM pledges itself “to carry on Bob Marley’s legacy of love for music and planet,” Best Buy’s earth-friendly ethos looked like a good fit, as did the retailer’s electronic-waste recycling program, which the company says is the most comprehensive in the United States.

And while HOM devotes plenty of energy to making products with “superior sound” (nobody’s going to pay for speakers that don’t pump), it maintains that its ecological stewardship is an integral part of the brand’s appeal for customers. “With ties to Bob Marley and ties to the planet,” Poulsen said, “we have authenticity that other brands don’t have.”

Part of HOM's environmental commitment involves the replanting of trees.
Courtesy of House of Marley

How much do consumers care about sustainability?

And no doubt that is true. But the larger question might be this: Do consumers care enough about the planet to respond to HOM’s sustainable messaging? And if so, do they care enough to select HOM over other cool, performance-driven audio brands?

Obviously, enough do to have kept HOM in business for a decade. And there’s plenty of evidence that consumers—and young consumers in particular—think about sustainability when they shop. Earlier this year, CGS surveyed a thousand shoppers and found that two-thirds of consumers keep sustainability in mind when making a purchase. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gen Z emerged as the most eco-conscious, with 68% having “made an eco-friendly purchase” this year. A Nielsen study from 2018 found similar results, with 69% of consumers in North America believing it’s very or extremely important that companies behave in ways responsible to the environment.

And for consumers who want to behave responsibly themselves, helping to curb e-waste is a fine way to do it. Electronic components contain a host of toxic materials—chromium, nickel, barium and lead among them—that seep into ground water and wreak no small amount of environmental havoc.

But if consumers were really as motivated to buy sustainable goods as they say, there should be a slew of electronics brands like HOM. But there aren’t. And if so many Americans are shopping sustainably, HOM should be a megabrand, though it isn’t. (The privately held company does not release fiscals, but in 2017 its Get Together speakers and Smile Jamaica earphones reportedly generated $6 million and $8.1 million in sales. Just for the sake of comparison, Apple makes over $5 million every hour.) So why the disconnect?

In short, Americans seem to like the sustainability cause just fine, just not enough to participate in it very often. While close to 100% of e-waste can be recycled, only about 20% of it is, according to a 2017 report from the United Nations. And when it comes to smartphones, the picture’s even worse. According to reprocessing firm Mayer Metals, Americans simply chuck 90% of their old phones into the trash.

Why, then, would a clear majority of Americans claim they care about the planet while an even bigger majority is sending their electronics to landfills? Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, believes it’s a classic case of people saying one thing and doing another.

“If you ask most men and women on the street if they feel responsible for ecology based on personal purchase decisions, most of them would say, ‘Yes, of course,'” he said. But Cohen is quick to point out that survey questions like that are loaded. “You don’t get a candid answer,” he said, and customers, in his experience, “don’t shop for altruistic reasons.”

Michael Rohwer, director of information and communications technology for sustainability consultants BSR, is largely in agreement.

“I keep changing my mind about the myth of the ethical consumer,” he said, referring to the theory first advanced by professor Timothy M. Devinney in the 2010 book The Myth of the Ethical Consumer that consumers simply do not go to the store with ethics in mind. And though shoppers might like to talk about how they support sustainability practices, “the dollars don’t seem to bear it out,” Rohwer said, though he does say he’s feeling “more optimistic” about the situation than he used to.

These Exodus headphones come with 50-mm hi-definition drivers and retail for $199.99.
Courtesy of House of Marley

The business challenges of being sustainable

Price, of course, is at the top of many shoppers’ minds. And since eco-responsible products tend to cost more, HOM has taken pains to make sure its sustainability ethos doesn’t put too much pressure on that price tag. While Poulsen maintains that his customers are “willing to pay a little more,” it’s clear that HOM can’t shift too much of sustainability’s added costs to them.

“We take a hit on profitability,” Poulsen said. “The one thing we don’t want is [to] charge that back to the consumer. Our products are in line with the competition. We can find ways to [be sustainable, and] we can still be a profitable company.”

This mandate is all the tougher, he added, given that a good many audio electronics are coming out of overseas factories, where concerns about the environment tend not to get in the way. “It’s hard for us in terms of when we’re competing with brands and factories in China producing products that are so low cost,” Poulsen said.

But if a sustainable electronics brand has to compete with inexpensive goods from the Far East and trim down its margins just to make a go of it, where’s the argument for going through all this trouble?

The answer seems to be this: As awareness of issues like global warming continues to rise and as younger consumers account for a growing amount of discretionary spending, companies are attempting to align themselves with those expectations now. Whether or not today’s consumers are willing to go out of their way to buy sustainable products, it seems a good bet that tomorrow’s customers will.

John Shegerian, the co-founder and executive chairman of ERI, the largest e-waste recycling company in the United States, is personally in touch with nearly every original equipment manufacturer you can name. “And here’s what they’re all talking about—the circular economy,” Shegerian said.

He means that electronics manufacturers aren’t just thinking about end-of-service-life recycling for their products; they are increasingly interested in finding manufacturing components (say, plastics) that have already been recycled. Why? Because using sustainable components buys them the right to market just how green they are. “This is the tipping point of seeing a lot of advertising to millennials who are buying this stuff,” he said, “and they really care about the environment.”

Which is probably good news for HOM. If mainstream manufacturers are waking up to sustainability, it only suggests it was ahead of the curve and is well positioned for the future. What’s more, while the jury might be out on the degree to which consumers will go out of their way to buy sustainable goods, veteran branding consultant Hayes Roth believes the concern for the planet being shown by younger customers is genuine.

“They are very attuned to everything they buy,” he said. “You just saw a million people marching,” he said, referring to 800 global protests that took place on Sept. 20 demanding action on climate change. “They’re not making up an issue.”

Poulsen would be the last to think they are, though he concedes consumers are not yet at the point where they all understand that their role in environmental stewardship includes buying sustainable goods. It is, he believes, a process of education, and it will take time. Awareness of the damage inflicted by single-use plastics is just now starting to evince itself in the increased use of reusable water bottles. “And then it expands into clothing and electronics,” he said. “I really think they are becoming more aware.”

Turntables are back, and HOM has a $199.99 model called Stir it Up.
Courtesy of House of Marley

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.
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