High street stores are increasingly crowing about their green credentials. Nick Slawicz digs deeper.
You may have seen them as you drive along the motorway: green and white Marks & Spencer lorries with curved roofs, proudly exclaiming that they’re ‘streamlined to save fuel’. Other, boxier vehicles state quite clearly: ‘This vehicle has switched to electric.’ Both form a small but integral part of ‘Plan A’ – the company’s much-lauded push in recent years to become more ecologically friendly – and in both cases the text is larger, more prominent and easier to read even than the shop’s own logo. The message is clear: M&S is putting the environment first. And it’s not just Marks and Spencer, either – the vast majority of high street stores are now making an effort to convince their consumers they’re taking a pro-environment view of business.
To paraphrase Gordon Gekko: green, it seems, is good – not just for the environment, but also for business as a whole. That would certainly explain why a veritable rogues’ gallery of companies has decided to become friends of the Earth, taking the extra steps to push this new agenda.
Cleaning up their acts
One of the most prominent of these is Wal-Mart, the American chain of supermarkets (and current owner of UK favourite Asda). Its past reputation when it came to the environment was less than stellar, culminating in a $1.5 million lawsuit in 2005 after 22 of its stores in Connecticut were found guilty of a slew of offences against the local ecosystem. The year before, it had been hit with a $3.1 million suit after similar violations in Utah and Tennessee. Fast-forward a year, though, and the company found itself picking up an award for its contribution to the environment. What happened in the interim? By all accounts, Wal-Mart cleaned up its act, quite literally, committing to reducing the energy consumption in its stores by 30 percent over three years, to employing trucks with a higher fuel-efficiency rating, and to cutting down on packaging and encouraging carrier-bag recycling; and all this to resounding scepticism from the environmental community. Could it really be possible for the biggest leopard to change its spots so quickly? More importantly, did that excuse past (mal)practice?
Questions about the ecological soundness of many UK companies have been rumbling away for years; but it is only comparatively recently that people have begun to take notice. In the past few years, the ‘big four’ – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – have all rolled out impressive new environmental campaigns, promising everything from an increase in local produce and sourcing responsible and sustainable suppliers through to ensuring their company cars are eco-friendly. But do companies really care about the environment, or are they just jumping on the green bandwagon? Do they see it as just a popular fad that’s likely to impress potential buyers?
Working in sync
The truth is that it doesn’t matter. What it demonstrates is not the fickleness of big business – far from it – but the importance of customer opinion. As more and more corporations find their users walking out of their automatic doors to find a greener shopping experience, it’s no wonder that they’re scrambling all over themselves in order to promote this as their new positive selling point. Whether they’re doing it to keep money in their pockets or out of sheer altruism, the fact remains that they’re doing it – for once, it seems that the free market and the environmentally-minded consumer are working in sync. Let them profit from their lowered carbon footprints. Let them sing their recycling and fuel emissions policies from the rooftops. As long as consumers demand improvement, it seems improvement is likely to keep coming.
Of course, it has never been as easy as a simple right versus wrong split, despite a lot of the dogma. Companies are beginning to recognise the immense difficulties of switching to a greener model – Tesco’s own webpage on the topic of eco-sustainability questions whether or not the environmental costs of importing fresh flowers from Kenya are outweighed by the social benefits of trading with underdeveloped economies. So why can’t we?
To expect these behemoths to shrug off decades of often shaky environmental practice overnight is dangerous, and to fail to applaud the progress they make while simultaneously berating them for dragging their feet on some issues is to entirely miss the point of the green movement. Change will come – is coming, in fact, if we’re willing to believe high street sustainability reports – but there is no magic bullet, and it will take patience and support as well as protestation and complaint.
As marketing juggernaut Tesco has reminded us for years, ‘Every little helps
UPDATE: one of our readers sends a link to this slightly old but still relevant report: Fashion Victims