Retail Sustainability: High, Low and Inbetween

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard offers his thoughts on running an environmentally conscious business and what is on his mind – the “myth of sustainability”, an ideal he sees as a path rather than [...]

Image credit: Getty Images, arturdebat.tk/Flickr

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard offers his thoughts on running an environmentally conscious business and what is on his mind – the “myth of sustainability”, an ideal he sees as a path rather than a destination. Though this last statement is bit too zen-like for our tastes, Patagonia does have a number of thoughtful green initiatives in place, particularly their 1% for the Planet project and product life-cycle studies, that can serve as valuable models for other corporations to follow. Chouinard feels that companies need to move away from thinking about saving the planet in terms of philanthropy and adopt the attitude that these are the new costs of doing business.

One company that has sought Chouinard’s advice and is poised to put it into action, is Wal-Mart, which will be announcing its plans to unveil a “sustainability index” for every product sold in its stores. A bold move for the world’s most powerful retailer that can potentially transform the entire retail landscape for both consumers and manufacturers. As Big Money explains:

For the index to work, consumer-goods makers will need to understand the origins of everything they put into their products. Wal-Mart has talked about assessing sustainability in four broad categories: energy and greenhouse gas emissions, materials, natural resources, and “people and communities,” which will attempt to measure social impacts. Right now, most supply chains are opaque: Try tracing a hamburger to a particular cow.

But given the leverage of Wal-Mart alone, not to mention its consortium that includes competitors, Kroger, Costco and Target, along with a number of large manufacturers like Unilever, General Mills and Proctor & Gamble, among others, one suspects that they’ll find a way to develop a methodology. And while this may sound good in theory, if this consortium is in charge of the analysis, isn’t it in their best interests to simply feed the public a bunch of phony results?

For the skeptics out there, the short answer is a resounding yes, but ultimately, Wal-Mart doesn’t want to own the index, but merely get it off the ground. Once underway, the project will most likely be handed off to a non-profit that will receive funding from a combination of retailers and manufacturers. In the interim, the project will led by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University, which will provide scientific research to support the effort. A number of unnamed academics, environmentalists and government officials have also been invited to take part.

On the other side of the aisle, we were struck by a recent piece in the Atlantic that endeavors to put the streamlined, Scandinavian design of IKEA in its proper place as, according to one EPA endorsed activist, “the least sustainable retailer on the planet.” It’s interesting to note that early on in the article, author Ellen Ruppel Shell makes the point that, “IKEA passes as the anti-Wal-Mart: a company where value and good values coexist,” which in light of the Wal-Mart’s initiatives, raises interesting questions about consumer perception.

Despite IKEA’s outward appearances at being eco-friendly – reusable blue bags, flat-packed trucking and partial use of renewable energy – on larger issues, the opposite might actually be true.

By some measures the world’s third-largest wood consumer, IKEA proudly employs 15 “forestry monitors.” Eight of them work in China and Russia, but illegal logging is widespread in those vast countries, making it impossible to guarantee that all wood is legally harvested. (The company declines to pay a premium to ensure that all timber is legally harvested, citing costs that would be passed along to the consumer.)

And no one can argue that IKEA’s furniture, while aesthetically pleasing and certainly sturdy enough, is designed to be handed down through generations. A function not only of its construction, but perhaps its lack of story as well. A fact that points to our own level of involvement with most of the things we buy.

Of course, no label, no matter how much information it contains, is going to singlehandedly transform our relationship with the objects that clutter our lives, but it’s a good a place as any to start, if only for their ability to make us stop and think. After all, we’re all on a journey, right?

The Atlantic: Buy to Last

The Big Money: Wal-Mart To Become Green Umpire

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