green retailAs manufacturers continue incorporating  sustainability practices within their product manufacturing processes and supply chains, the retail industry – as the main customer point of contact – bears the responsibility of educating consumers about the sustainability choices available in the market.

by Jennifer Rice, Principal with Fruitful Strategy. Jennifer is presenting “Building the Credible Sustainable Brand” at the Sustainable Brands’10 Conference. Follow Jennifer Rice on Twitter.

Recently I was in the market for a new laptop, so I headed over to Best Buy and a few other places to check out their selections. And of course since I’m in the business of sustainability, I was looking for a bit of education on “green” electronics: which manufacturers were leading and lagging in this area, and which PCs I should be considering for energy savings, recycled materials and recycling programs, and reduced or eliminated toxic material like PCBs?

Sure, I could have just checked out Greenpeace’s Electronics Report, but I wanted to go through the typical buyer process and see what I could learn. To my surprise, Best Buy had no information on the subject… not on signage, and not when I asked an associate. While I later found a program on their website called “Greener Together” buried in their Corporate Responsibility section, I didn’t see any evidence of it in store. At the other end of the spectrum, it wasn’t hard at the Apple store to learn more about “the world’s greenest lineup of notebooks.”

I often hear from executives, “we don’t think the market is ready for sustainability. It’s not coming up in our research as an important purchase attribute.” I’d suggest that consumers can’t care about something they know nothing about. It’s the role of retail to help consumers make educated choices. Leading manufacturers should not only be demanding sustainability from their supply chains, they should also be pushing retailers — as their main customer point of contact — to help educate the market on the choices available.

A few retailers are paving the way. Marks & Spencer in the UK is probably one of the best-known examples, although US retailers are beginning to gain traction. Home Depot is my favorite US example with Eco Options, which includes a product certification program covering over 3,000 products, product labeling, in-store signage, and even a magazine. They’ve done an excellent job evaluating the entire customer experience and enabling customers to make informed purchase choices.

Other good examples are Whole Foods, the earliest pioneer in careful product selection, Staples EcoEasy program, and REI’s Ecosensitive labeling (although it’s hard to find from the home page). As much as Wal-Mart is doing in sustainability, I’m not seeing much action in customer-facing labeling or education… that said, I don’t live near one, so if you happen to have information on what Wal-Mart is doing in the customer experience I’d love to hear it.

Bottom line: embedding sustainability into the customer experience is crucial for moving the ball forward on these issues with customers. No one cares about a press release; they care that you’re making an effort to help them make smarter choices. This is how you not only attract existing values-driven buyers, but expand the entire market.

Oh, in case you’re interested, I ended up with a 15″ MacBook Pro. I’d like to say it was for all the information they provided on environmental considerations, but it’s just an unbelievably cool computer. Bye bye PCs!

Photo Courtesy of Laura Leavell

Jennifer is presenting “Building the Credible Sustainable Brand” at the Sustainable Brands’10 Conference. Green Economy Post Community discounts for the conference are available through 6/7/10.  Use code grnecosb10 and receive a 20% discount on All Event and Conference Only passes. Contact Nick Life to register, 415.626.2212.  For more information or to register online visit, www.sustainablebrands10.com

© 2010, Jennifer_Rice. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Jennifer_Rice (7 Articles)

Jennifer Rice, Principal with Fruitful Strategy is a strategist who's passionate about the role businesses can play in creating a better world. After almost 20 years in brand and customer experience strategy, she started Fruitful to help companies profitably align brand and business strategy with social impact. Jennifer has been recognized as a rapid and intuitive problem solver, a dynamic speaker and a get-it-done professional. She brings a global perspective, having managed strategy projects for businesses in the EU, Dubai and Southeast Asia. Consulting and corporate-side experience ranges from the Fortune 50 to smaller regional players across a range of industries including tech, hospitality and healthcare. Follow her on Twitter.

  • http://www.cose.org/blog Tim Kovach

    I think that you make some very valid and important points in this article. There is a lot that the retail sector could and should be doing on sustainability that isn’t really being done currently. As the Pew Center for Global Climate Change pointed out in its recent report on energy efficiency, From Shop Floor to Top Floor: Best Business Practices in Energy Efficiency, the majority of the energy consumed for a product sold by an end-chain retailer comes after a consumer purchases it. This means that one of the most effective ways for retailers to reduce their supply chain carbon footprint is simply by selling and actively pushing more sustainable and efficient products and brands.

    But I definitely agree with your point on marketing the sustainability of products. Most consumers simply have too many things going on to be able to conduct a life cycle analysis on the sustainability of their breakfast cereal, toothpaste, or DVD player. The retailer and product manufacturer need to invest more into this end in order to make the distinction between a green and brown product clearer to the consumer. Those of us who actively follow websites like this are likely more concerned about the impact of our purchases than the average consumer, so we can’t base things on our own experiences and practices. Sustainability is becoming a megatrend in business, but that does not mean that retailers and producers no longer need to take the onus to prove that a product has green credentials; nor does that mean that greenwashing should become acceptable.

    If retailers wish to show their commitment to their triple bottom line, they need to do more than simply changing out their lights and making their delivery systems more efficient. The fact is that the nature of retail means that nearly 100% of the energy used in the lifetime of the products they sell will occur outside of the confines of the store. Therefore they need to ensure that the products they are selling become more sustainable; they also need to market those products as sustainable if they want consumers to demand those types of products.

    – Tim Kovach
    Product Coordinator, Energy at COSE (Council of Smaller Enterprises)
    http://www.cose.org/blog
    http://www.twitter.com/COSEenergy