Retailers Make Green Moves Before Earth Day

Discussion
Apr 20, 2007

By George Anderson

Wal-Mart and Home Depot were the two highest profile retailers to make green moves this week in the lead up to Earth Day on April 22.

The world’s largest retailer broke a national print and television ad campaign this week promoting products, including low-energy compact fluorescent light bulbs, organic cotton pajamas and concentrated laundry detergent.

Home Depot also made a green splash this week with the unveiling of the company’s Eco Options labeling program that will identify nearly 3,000 environmentally friendly products sold in its stores. Home Depot expects that number to climb to 6,000 products by 2009 with the sale of those items representing roughly 12 percent of the retailer’s total.

The Eco Options program while new to the U.S. is not new for Home Depot. The chain first introduced the program in Canada in 2004 and sales of items carrying the Eco Options label have been strong. More than 90 percent of the items receiving the Eco Options label are already sold in Home Depot’s stores.

Ron Jarvis, vice president for environmental innovation at Home Depot, told The New York Times, “Given the option of a product that performs just as well, we are seeing the consumer would rather buy something that has less of an impact on the environment. We are just making that easier.”

Lawrence Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, an environmental group that works with Home Depot, thinks that consumers are moving environmental friendliness up on their purchasing hierarchy.

“What feels different today is the level of public engagement,” he said. “There is a buzz in the country right now. The buying public is ready, willing and able.”

Richard Hastings, vice president and senior retail sector analyst at Bernard Sands, said Wal-Mart and Home Depot are testing for the willingness that Mr. Selzer described.

“They know the buzz is out there,” he told The Associated Press. “They’re trying to find out what is the market out there. They need to know what is the demand, what is the response.”

Discussion Question: American consumers have shown a willingness to buy eco-friendly food products. Are they now willing to extend that to categories such as light bulbs, household cleaners and clothing basics such as pajamas? What is your assessment of what Wal-Mart and Home Depot are doing in these areas?

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17 Comments on "Retailers Make Green Moves Before Earth Day"


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Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
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Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
15 years 1 month ago
Interesting that the poll results are much more positive than the BrainTrust commentaries…. The net is clear–consumers in the USA are not Green Motivated! A recent LOHAS study indicated that only about 17% in the USA are green motivated. Most consumers will not pay more for green products and most consumers don’t really know what sustainability means. But I believe that is changing–retailers are clearly making a push both in the USA and abroad to lay down serious programs to reduce environmental impacts. It will be a long road and new holistic and “game changing” thinking will be the driver for making it work. Infrastructure and support from all parts of industry and government will need to line up to make the difference. It looks like we are moving toward a tipping point where more and more organizations are stepping up. Just look at all the articles on green–no-one can keep up on the developing information–and all of this will help with communication and education. But in the US right now, it is about convenience… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

When going green is the most economical way to go, then I think Americans will move in that direction. To most Americans there is no point is going “green” unless they can personally see a direct benefit to themselves. The same for retailers. Their primary responsibility is to increase the personal wealth of stockholders. Before each green move they need to determine if it will improve the bottom line. Often times, while these green initiatives are well meaning, they have no direct meaningful impact. I’ve moved to the eco light bulbs and have noticed a savings in the electric bill. On the other hand I get complaints about how long it takes for the light bulbs to warm up.

Mark Hunter
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Mark Hunter
15 years 1 month ago

Consumers will be slow to embrace buying eco-friendly products if there is any increase in price compared to what they’re currently buying. Sure there will be a segment that will embrace buying eco-friendly but it will be far from the mass majority. To find proof you only have to look at the number of US households who have the ability to practice recycling at home but do not choose to recycle for one reason or another.

Lisa Bradner
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Lisa Bradner
15 years 1 month ago

It’s interesting that the green movement, which has tried so many times to engage people and failed, is finally gathering steam. Wal-Mart seems to be “walking the walk” in living out Lee Scott’s verbal commitments to reducing emissions and being a greener retailer–interesting given that Tesco has been delivering much the same message in Europe.

I think the effort is good and noble but with Americans it will always come down to–does the product perform and is it effortless for me to use? Americans show themselves resistant to changing behaviors. Wal-Mart’s own survey showed only 2/3 of their customers would embrace environmental products even if there were no difference in price! One wonders a bit about the other third.

The biggest impact for the environment goes on behind the scenes–reducing the emissions of the global supply chain, pushing vendors to develop less wasteful packaging. While the consumer facing PR is nice I hope both Home Depot and Wal-Mart will continue to keep a focus on those areas as well.

Gregory Belkin
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Gregory Belkin
15 years 1 month ago

I think consumers will *eventually* jump in to the eco friendly product line. However, I think it is going to take some time for the mainstream to pick it up. The products are very expensive, and those items that are “long lasting” haven’t lasted long enough to prove their staying power.

Green products have a bright future in the minds of consumers. It is just going to take some time before the price factor is overcome.

David Biernbaum
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other retailer’s campaigns this week promoting environmentally friendly products will help to win over an additional percentage of new consumers. However, in my opinion, consumers need to perceive greater value or more benefits to buying environmental friendly products beyond simply doing the right thing for the environment. For example, the low-energy compact fluorescent light bulbs are said to have much longer lasting power which is a clear benefit to millions of consumers that don’t like getting out the ladder to change bulbs, but don’t want to lose the benefit of having the same wattage they had before.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
15 years 1 month ago
This could be a new trend in this country and it is about time! For many years, several other countries have used recycled grocery bags and in other ways taken care of the environment. In the US, we have a packaging overload! Many are now concerned about the future environment. Baby boomers are known for having fiscally responsible attitudes; now the “new shift” is growing to be “ecologically responsible.” Everyone is becoming much more aware of toxic air and water pollutants. Many are looking at eco friendly products and for places to purchase them. A preview of many cancer prevention websites will give you a list of toxic household items that we use every day. The concern is not only for being eco friendly but also for better health. With a dramatic increase in cancer, people are becoming diligent in seeking out and using eco friendly and healthy products. Many who can afford it will pay the additional price; others will try to find a cheaper alternative. The important issue is that consumers are becoming… Read more »
Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
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Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
15 years 1 month ago

Consumers may be moving environmental friendliness up their purchasing hierarchies, but it’s not going to be a primary consideration. As was expressed, all other things being equal, consumers would prefer to know they are being more environmental friendly (or neutral), but until all other things are equal, well….

Sort of the same with the expressed preference for American-made products, isn’t it? People express that all other things being equal, they would prefer to buy American. But when it comes to the moment of purchase decision, it is not a top priority.

I conducted an extensive consumer research project on this subject for a major (foreign)automobile manufacturer some years ago (also in conjunction with Earth Day!), which produced the same results. The manufacturer wanted to tout its environmental record in marketing and advertising to influence purchasing decisions. We found it would have no effect whatsoever.

Things are changing, but slowly.

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

I agree with Michael that we’re at the tipping point. It appears that sustainability is progressing from partisan concern to zeitgeist, and as it does so, suppliers will hopefully begin applying common sense to packaging.

For example, the practice of putting small, expensive items–e.g. printer cartridges–into relatively huge packages to discourage shoplifters. (The other day, I saw a roll of U.S. postage stamps in a tamper proof plastic sleeve the size of a cereal box!) In these and other cases, being responsible will require changing the way many of these products are distributed and displayed. It’s going take imaginative solutions–vending machines come to mind. But at some point, the danger of appearing to be environmentally irresponsible will force change, even if it’s more costly to consumers.

Steven Roelofs
Guest
Steven Roelofs
15 years 1 month ago

This isn’t what you want to hear, but the problem isn’t the “greenness” of products, but consumer consumption to begin with. We’ve become a society that shops for entertainment and therapy, rather than for needs. Over two-thirds of the American economy is based on consumer consumption. That’s not only insane, but also unsustainable.

Green products are not going to make a dent in our environmental problems; tripling the price of gas will. Use that money to invest in public transportation and high-speed rail. Build denser cities that take up less space. Invest in infrastructure, housing and education for the future, rather than in the latest fashion and fads for now. But that isn’t what Americans are willing to do.

Eric Togneri
Guest
Eric Togneri
15 years 1 month ago

There was a terrific debate between John Kerry and Newt Gingrich in the last couple of weeks that addressed the move toward eco-friendly product and services. The crux of the debate hinged on the weight of importance placed on regulation versus entrepreneurial incentives.

I certainly fall on the side of the argument that mass adoption of eco-friendly solutions has to be a direct result of consumer demand and the resulting entrepreneurial response. The creation of “green” products and the decision for retailers to sell these products is a direct response to demand. As with all trends and categories, the consumer ultimately is the final arbiter of what is adopted and survives. The focus of those that want to drive this trend need to vote with their purchase decisions and encourage as many folks as possible to do the same. Don’t worry…the products will come and the retailers will sell.

Matt Werhner
Guest
Matt Werhner
15 years 1 month ago

Echoing some previous viewpoints, this is a trend and its sustainability and possible growth are price and attitude driven. To see growth in sales relating to environmentally friendly products, more consumers will not only have to shift their attitudes but also their purchasing habits, and this comes back to price point. For example, if consumer confidence relating to these products continues to rise and the price point of these products is reasonably close to or even less than their counterparts, there would be a considerable rise in the number sold. Mother Earth is backing this trend 100%, but it’s up to manufacturers to keep costs down and retailers to keep sending the message to their customers.

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 1 month ago
I agree with Michael as well. In some ways, all bets are off on past research into “green” purchasing. Only in the last year or so has global climate change become an issue that the average American knows anything about. It is no longer a topic of debate among scientists, it is a pop culture topic. Al Gore won an Oscar for goodness sake! The war in Iraq has also changed attitudes. Some percentage of the population, at least, sees that in terms of the political impact of dependence on Middle Eastern oil. They are starting to understand that far from being beyond their control, even a relatively modest reduction in oil consumption would eliminate our need to import oil from that area. All that said, the most important thing cited in the article above is today’s “green” products don’t ask for compromises in performance. Compact fluorescent bulbs used to take forever to brighten up, were bulky, couldn’t be dimmed, and produced a harsh light. Those problems are largely gone today. Cleaning products, plastic products,… Read more »
J. Peter Deeb
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

Home Depot has jumped in to the Green game with both feet. The number of items that they are placing in their stores will take up valuable shelf space that they must be willing to sacrifice while the consumer “catches up”! Prices should come down over time but reliability of product will be equally important because even the most environmentally friendly consumers will need to be satisfied with the products.

Ben Ball
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

Consumers are indeed ready to be eco-friendly–provided it doesn’t cost them anything/much.

To be more precise, eco-friendly is a product attribute. It has a given utility to every consumer, just like any other attribute such as quantity and quality. The premium consumers will pay for that attribute varies based on how motivated they are to be “eco-friendly” in general.

But there’s a better way to create serious change in America’s habits. Make eco-friendly a better value and sell it on that basis. A perfect example is the new fluorescent bulbs. They cost more to start with but last seven times as long as incandescent bulbs and use 40% of the energy. In short, they pay out in about three months, not counting replacement costs. Sell them to consumers this way and incandescent bulbs will be gone in two years.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

Wal-Mart and Home Depot got great publicity for their sustainability marketing. It’s a lot better to get publicity for being eco-friendly than for laying people off, offering minimal benefits, low salaries, poor customer service and greedy CEO pay packages. Best of all, with only minor exceptions, both retailers didn’t need to make any special inventory or shelf-space investment anyway, since the products being publicized were commonly in-stock before the publicity. The smartest retailers get positive publicity at minimal cost.

MARK DECKARD
Guest
MARK DECKARD
15 years 28 days ago
Timing is right in the marketplace and consumer product companies can take advantage of it so long as they don’t screw it up. Consumers will reach for “greener” products if the price of doing so is not punitive. Demand seems to be elastic enough, however, to support a slight premium. That’s where product companies must be creative in their approach to product materials, the supply chain, packaging and positioning of the goods and the good old 4 P’s of marketing, (product, price, place and promotion). If the goods cost more, companies must do a darn good job of telling the product story and promoting the overall value at a glance. A great example is fluorescent bulbs to replace standard light bulbs. Packaging has evolved to highlight longer life and the fraction of energy consumed, which justifies the higher price. This very basic value/price relationship carries over to every category of goods, even when the “value” part of the equation is something less concrete such as sustainability, biodegradability, etc. Even completely “un-green” products can be made… Read more »
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