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Published on July 21st, 2009 | by Susanna Schick

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Is This the End of Greenwashing for Consumer Products?

July 21st, 2009 by  

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That depends on your perspective- how green is enough?

After watching Walmart’s Sustainability Milestone meeting, I am still convinced that the index they’re developing could be the end of greenwashing as we know it. They’ve engaged a broad enough range of engaged stakeholders, from Environmental Defense Fund to Business for Social Responsibility to their competitors that this could truly succeed. All speakers talked enough about the importance of full life-cycle analysis and transparency. The level of transparency is laudable, but there is still a question as to how well these metrics will be monitored. While the retailer is working closely with their suppliers to help them reduce their emissions, other changes require better management practices, which are harder to monitor.

By October, their US suppliers (Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, etc.) will have answered 15 questions related to life-cycle analysis of their products. These questions mainly focus on GHG emissions and labor practices throughout the entire supply chain. Most are yes/no, and Walmart will use these answers to determine what needs to be addressed first. The second step in this massive project, and the one where Walmart wants to be sure all stakeholders are involved, entails actually creating and maintaining the database of information about all these products. Mike Duke, CEO, explained they want to spur development of an open platform that all retailers and manufacturers can develop.

Yes, their suppliers are being asked some critical questions that will shape the direction of this index. But what drives Walmart’s decisions around sustainability are these three goals:

1. To be supplied by 100% by renewable energy

2. To create zero waste

3. To sell products that sustain our resources and environment

Considering those goals: Does grass-fed, free-range, rGBH & antibiotic-free beef sustain our resources better or just make for happier, healthier cows and the people who eat them? Does ending US farming subsidies fulfill any of those goals? No? Well, then it seems those issues may have to wait.

But like any Walmart product- the $401.2 billion (FY09 Revenue) question is: Are there enough acres of grassland on Earth to feed all the cows consumed by Walmart customers? We already know there’s not enough organic cotton in the world to satisfy Walmart shoppers, which is why Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard instructed them to focus more on recyclable polyester textiles.

What would be the equivalent in food? Oh wait, it exists already. Veganism. Or an easier compromise- making meat a luxury to be enjoyed once a week instead of three times a day. That sort of compromise would sustain our resources and environment (especially water, the next big crisis), with the added bonus of reducing obesity. But of course, it would mean selling less meat, which, even at a higher price, will really force a lot of companies to redefine how they measure success.

The elephant in the room at any Walmart discussion on sustainability is Reduce. As in reducing consumption. While there was much talk about improving quality, there was little mention of reducing consumption, not even from the President of the Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption. The only speaker who even broached the topic was Mike Duke, CEO, when he explained that the economic crisis has brought on a “new normal” of how consumers view consumption- saying that they are smarter about spending, and he thinks this will continue.

Duke also mentioned the root cause of this whole mess: overpopulation and the planet’s inability to cope with it. It’s also the first point in the Sustainable Product Index Fact Sheet. He cites this as the main reason the index is needed, so I’m very happy to see this being acknowledged. Now that they’ve finally made it easier for women to prevent unplanned pregnancies, they’re on the right path.

When the CEO of the world’s largest retailer basically says “people are going to continue spending less money.” it sounds like something every retailer and consumer products company should seriously contemplate. Do you need to redefine your business in order to survive in the face of this frugality?

The examples presented were impressive, focused around helping their suppliers improve their energy and water efficiency. I was so excited about the ultra high-efficiency toilet at Sam’s Club I would almost trade in my Costco membership for Sam’s. What was sad is that he even had to explain “dual flush” in a country where water is fast becoming a scarcity.

What is natural? This word always sets off my greenwashing alarm, and Andrea Thomas’ (SVP Private Brands) use of it was no exception. There is constant debate with and inside the USDA around labeling food as “natural.” OK, so they removed starches and stabilizers from the sour cream discussed. But no mention of what the cows were being fed. Last I checked, the only natural food for cows is grass. The only reason methane digesters were such a major part of the presentation is that cows have a terrible time digesting corn. So they produce too much methane, which is a much worse GHG than CO2. As to why they’re being fed corn, well now, that’s a barrel of Monsanto, I mean, monkeys, I doubt even Walmart wants to touch.

The third step, which is slated to be unveiled 5-10 years down the line, is to create a simple tool to educate consumers. This is where you come in, passionate reader- how can this best be communicated, especially at the product level? They’re measuring a few very different things here- GHG emissions, resource (water, oil, metals, etc.) consumption, waste reduction, and social impact. How best can they display a product’s performance on such a broad range of metrics on say, a tube of mascara? Better yet, how to communicate this to consumers with limited internet access or limited literacy?

My favorite quote came from John Fleming, EVP and CMO, when talking about how deeply the younger generation cares about sustainability, and how Walmart hopes to be the first retailer to truly crossover between generations: “We may never be cool, but we care, and we can make a difference.” J I’d still rather be cool and save the planet. Is that too much to ask?

Image Courtesy PinkMoose via Flickr under Creative Commons License.


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About the Author

Susanna is passionate about anything fast and electric. As long as it's only got two wheels. She covers electric motorcycle racing events, test rides electric motorcycles, and interviews industry leaders. Occasionally she deigns to cover automobile events in Los Angeles for us as well. However, she dreams of a day when Los Angeles' streets resemble the two-wheeled paradise she discovered living in Barcelona and will not rest until she's converted the masses to two-wheeled bliss.



  • Ambitious, yet completely necessary goals. That Wally World is taking steps – whatever their size – towards those goals, and using their gravity to drag along suppliers, stakeholders, competitors, etc. can only be seen as encouraging.

    Regarding how to communicate a products “green” attributes across cultures and literacy levels – a universal graphical style needs to be developed that represents a product’s level of performance across said metrics – the equivalent of the “Nutrition Facts” found on all US food products. This will need to become an embedded part of product design and packaging. Small, yet information-dense. A true challenge for information designers!

  • Ambitious, yet completely necessary goals. That Wally World is taking steps – whatever their size – towards those goals, and using their gravity to drag along suppliers, stakeholders, competitors, etc. can only be seen as encouraging.

    Regarding how to communicate a products “green” attributes across cultures and literacy levels – a universal graphical style needs to be developed that represents a product’s level of performance across said metrics – the equivalent of the “Nutrition Facts” found on all US food products. This will need to become an embedded part of product design and packaging. Small, yet information-dense. A true challenge for information designers!

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