When corporate 'greening' chafes environmentalists

Green bloggers can be a nitpicky bunch, but their hats are off to Wal-Mart's new eco-friendly initiatives.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
When retail king Wal-Mart Stores started rolling out one pro-sustainability initiative after another, environmental bloggers and pundits were at first stunned.

"We've all been talking about it," said Lloyd Alter, a Toronto-based sustainable architect and developer who blogs at the environmental news and lifestyle blog Treehugger.

"It's what I call the 'October Surprise.' A year ago in October, when (Wal-Mart CEO) Lee Scott made that announcement of things that he was going to do, I was really skeptical, and I continue in some ways to be skeptical. Yet I'm constantly surprised and impressed when nearly every week another new (environmental) initiative comes up," Alter said.

Indeed, Wal-Mart has been planning a range of new programs, from renewable-energy campaigns to sustainable-electronics awareness promotions. And the most surprising part, for environmental bloggers like Alter, is that Wal-Mart seems to be for real.

These days, after all, it's not enough for environmentalists to be critical of antienvironmental corporate practices. With green technology a bigger buzzword than ever, plenty of corporations that don't have particularly "green" histories have been promoting a more environmentally progressive image.

Over the past few years, a new pejorative has entered the lexicon of environmental blogger slang: "greenwashing." The term is used in reference to advertising and marketing campaigns that the bloggers believe deceptively promote eco-friendly policies or products by companies and organizations that are engaging in practices that aren't particularly "green." And with the rapidly escalating interest in sustainable technology, references to "greenwashing" are being spotted more and more these days on blogs like Treehugger and Inhabitat.

The most common targets are, not surprisingly, energy companies and auto manufacturers. Alter says he first began using the term about two years ago.

"I was particularly upset about a campaign that Ford Motor Company was having for a new hybrid car (the Ford Escape), and I thought, 'Here's a company that's got one decent green product, and they're putting it in all their advertising and wrapping their whole campaign around it. It's not even that green a car. They just put a hybrid engine into an SUV,'" he said.

When image and reality conflict
Alter also criticized General Electric's "Ecomagination" initiative, which has been developing high-efficiency incandescent lightbulbs, when some environmentalists allege that GE should be cutting production of incandescent bulbs altogether and focusing entirely on fluorescent bulbs.

Even Toyota, the auto manufacturer that has arguably been the most successful in cultivating an eco-friendly image with the runaway success of its Prius hybrid car, can't seem to escape greenwashing accusations from environmental pundits.

Marc Alt, president of consulting firm Marc Alt & Partners, which specializes in environmentally focused corporate strategies, criticized Toyota for continuing to produce vehicles that get low gas mileage while the Prius gives it a "green" profile. The iconic little hybrid has a "halo effect," Alt said, giving the whole company an eco-savvy image, when in reality it "kind of hides the effect that they're putting out one of the biggest pickup trucks on the market"--the gigantic Toyota Tundra.

"A lot of companies are taking small steps" toward environmental sustainability, Lloyd Alter observed, "and their marketing departments are turning them into huge steps."

Clearly, environmental specialists are a nitpicky crowd. Which is why it's particularly noticeable that Wal-Mart, an unequivocal emblem of 21st-century middle America for both flattering and not-so-flattering reasons, is earning their seal of approval as a major corporation that's putting out legitimate green initiatives.

"Wal-Mart has done an about-face on the environment over the past year, and this is one of a score of initiatives it has taken that frankly none of us had seen coming," said Joel Makower, editor of GreenBiz.com, a news and resource site focused on how corporations address environmental issues. "The reasons for (the environmental initiatives) are many and varied, some of which have to do with their image problems and the pressures they face, but they also seek competitive advantage here and the ability to create new markets for products that they think their customers will want."

And as much as some Wal-Mart practices may make your average eco-geek wrinkle his nose, they are willing to admit that such practices will make a difference simply because of how big the company is. "Everybody's watching them," said Marc Alt. "What (Wal-Mart does) has massive effects on the global economy, and has the potential to actually have the most positive effects on the environment as well, just because of the sheer amount of trucking and shipping they do, and the amount of energy they use."

The biggest criticism (and perhaps the most unfair one) of the green campaign of Wal-Mart and others is that they are also savvy business moves: Hewlett-Packard, for example, redesigned its print cartridge packaging earlier this year in a move that not only "greened" its production, but also pared down shipping costs and freed up retailers' shelf space.

When it comes to high-profile environmental initiatives, Wal-Mart has "been doing the most work out of any global corporation, but they haven't really telegraphed that to their customer base as well," said Alt. "The sustainable initiatives of Wal-Mart have really been the province of business magazines."

Representatives from Wal-Mart declined to comment on how they intend to advertise and publicize their environmental initiatives to consumers. If they do, they still wouldn't be immune to criticism from the environmentalist front. The company's advertising campaigns, after all, have inspired a fair amount of "greenwash" finger-pointing in the past.

Even before any such advertising kicks in, the attitude of many hard-core environmentalists will be "proceed with caution." "I have never shopped at Wal-Mart. I still wouldn't,' said Lloyd Alter, citing concerns about the company's manufacturing and labor practices. "When Wal-Mart starts to look at that, they might as well reinvent their whole damned company. So they're ahead of the curve, and yet in some ways they're behind the curve."

But GreenBiz.com's Makower is willing to focus on the positive. "What Wal-Mart's doing (with its sustainable electronics initiative) raises consumer awareness that there are environmental issues related to iPods, Game Boys, PCs, fax machines," he said. "That could be very helpful in general. That could help move the needle."

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