March 29, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

When corporate 'greening' chafes environmentalists

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"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, 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'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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Many environmentalists will never be happy with anything 'big business' does simply because, for them, environmentalism is simply of way of speaking out against capitalism without sounding too much backward.

Where I come from (Belgium), the Green Party is made up mostly from former communists who, after the demise of the USSR, had to find a new way to voice their opposition to capitalism. Environmentalism allowed them to do that, as well as push for more government regulation of the economy.
Posted by damienlittre (33 comments )
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Inthe US we never had the communist party in power. We just had Ralph NAdar and the environmentalists.
Posted by Too Old For IT (351 comments )
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Bloggers are the new journalists
It's cute that now users are running the show, and it may best be that way, countries such as China are keeping a tight rein on bloggers, but with growing trends on the Internet, upcoming sites such as <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> empowers people to post comments or blogs anonymously which previously if they do so with any criticism towards the government, they are more likely to spend the rest of their lives in jail.
Posted by AlienEric (42 comments )
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Solar power & recyclables don't amount to..
..much of WMT's product line. WMT is primarily in the business of selling food. Four years ago they made a bold "green" statement that it was their intention to start selling pure certified organic foodstuffs. Four months ago, they quietly killed that effort after they'd discovered the limited availability and substantially higher cost of organic foodstuffs. If they put a Walmarts branded organic food SKU on their shelves, they'd have no option but to slash their usual margin by half and that was verboten at Bentonville.
Posted by i_made_this (302 comments )
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The Bottom Line is...
...that where people have the freedom of choice, they'll choose what they want. In the U.S., there is really no compelling reason for an individual to buy one of the present hybrid vehicles (unless of course you're a treehugger). They cost more, get marginally better mileage (not better at all on the highway), and subject the user to various compromises (less interior space, costly battery packs, fewer options for mechanical service, etc.). GM pulled its EV-1, a purely electric car (no hybrid) because it wasn't economical for either side at the time.

The Euro-Greenies want to change those freedoms by limiting choices, or reducing speed limits, or other means.

Bottom line: until people truly perceive a reason to buy into eco-cars and similar green initiatives, they won't. That's why you drive a BMW, rather than a Prius, or a Focus, rather than a (fill in the blank). It's your choice.

I'm all for letting the free market decide what's available in an area, based on what the consumer wants. But the greenies just don't understand that.

Want to make a statement? Fine, buy a Prius or similar. But when I pass you, I see someone who spent a lot of money they'll never recover (unless they drive it 250,000 miles or so), for a car with so-so performance (which I value very much), to satisfy their need to "save the planet".

I realize they have their desires, which is fine. That we don't all have the same ideas of what's nice in a car is what makes buying a new or used car so interesting.

While I talk about cars, I think the same logic could be applied to other areas.

Of course, "your mileage may vary".

My 2% of $1.00.
Posted by TransplantGuy (249 comments )
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Freerider rational choice comes to mind
Well: if enough other people will step forward and purchase the more expensive and slightly less spiffy vehicles, then certainly My more inefficient car won't make that much of a difference to the environment. To overcome this 'rational choice' logic, often referred to as freeriding, some environmentalists want to level the playing field and make everyone participate in the 'solution' for the good of the environment.
'no fair letting the burden to implement the solutions fall upon the shoulders of a few volunteers only' they say. See.

When there are market failures, when it is a 'race to the bottom', the authorities have the duty to judge on the value of allowing unbridled freedom to act 'rationally' according to the conditions that exist (( conditions which are never ever purely 'naturally occuring'..... advertising; profit maximizing; creating the conditions of the market etc... always make for a skewed playing field)) and on the value of shaping the conditions in which people may act for the best interest of the entire group. ie: Let the private sector create the conditions or have the government put in place some parameters to level the playing field. Unbridled freedom for the Private sector OR conditions put into place to promote competition and the building of good citizenship traits in our people.

For the most part I believe in letting the private sector form and shape the conditions for the population at large. But when it is a race to cut down the last tree or to burn the last barrel of oil or to catch the last fish in the sea before someone else does, it is the duty of the government to step in and correct the shortcomings of the market. Thus far I am still hoping that the private sector will arrange and select for solutions to the environment without the government limiting and selecting our options.

So: who will step forward and do more for the greater good which all persons may enjoy whether or not they participated in the creation of that greater good?? We must overcome the short term logic which the rational actor theory claims as our overriding logic and choose to do what is most in our best interest "rightly understood" (De Tocqueville). Think of and do what is best for the whole accross time and place. Do this for our children, Do this for our peace of mind, Do this because here and now it is right.
Posted by jefframse (20 comments )
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Buy a Hybrid, Save the Planet...
So where is the criticism for the tree huggers who advocate the purchase of energy efficient hybrid vehicles only to see increased numbers of people going out and buying these cars thinking they are personally going to slow global warming.

Keep in mind the car has to be created from natural resources, pollution will be created in the production and distribution of this vehicle...and all the while their old car is STILL ON THE ROAD, being driven by someone else who bought it used.

Your best bet...if you really wanted to "reduce your carbon footprint", would be to buy a used Honda Civic or something. Dont think you're saving the world buy increasing your consumption. Make a difference by living with what you currently have.

Then feel all smug for a moment till you remember that eventually the Earth burns up in the Sun anyway.
Posted by aerovelo (2 comments )
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Further clarification
I was quoted in the above article and would like to further clarify my position. I don't feel that my position on the matter was portrayed accurately in the context of the quote.

I have always been a proponent of both Toyota and Honda for their early commitment to research, development and production of alternative fuel and hybrid engines. I often point to Toyota as an excellent example of a company making a material commitment to sustainability and emphasize how their dedication has, in part, helped them rise to their current market leading position. In my interview with the reporter, I was trying to emphasize how the Prius has had a halo effect on the company and how it helps them to be perceived as environmental leaders in the marketplace, even though they are still producing fuel-inefficient cars such as the Tundra (which could, of course, in the future benefit from a bio-diesel drivetrain). Probably a little-known fact is that Toyota joined with many other car companies in an effort to block new government regulations that would increase fuel efficiency standards and are party to a lawsuit in the state of California to oppose laws that essentially favor more fuel-efficient cars. The complexity of the automotive marketplace can lead to this kind of mixed-messaging even from companies that are perceived market leaders in environmental performance. In any case, to be clear, I highly advocate ANY commitment and action towards improving environmental standards by any company, and I feel that even the smallest improvements should be promoted heavily and rewarded to encourage further corporate and environmental citizenship.

The concept of "greenwashing" vs. substantive change is difficult to quantify in the automotive industry in many ways. By investing their research dollars in the 1990's in technologies with improved environmental performance, Toyota made a long-term bet that this strategy would be a market differentiator and a sound competitive strategy moving into the "peak oil" and climate challenged 21st century. Their strategy paid off with the incredible success of the Prius and validated the concept of using environmental performance as a market differentiator. Ford, in their own way, tried to promote a green image through admirable and environmentally sound efforts like building one of the world?s largest green roofs on the top of their River Rouge plant, but that kind of commitment never reached the consumer in a meaningful way as they failed to produce a hybrid car to compete with Prius in the marketplace. Ford has dedicated money to many other environmental causes, but in the eyes of the consumer (and thus ultimately the car market), none of these noble gestures helped their marketplace position. The consumer could not directly connect with these efforts and this dedication never made it to the showroom floor, a huge strategic misstep. Now Ford finds itself in the position of playing catch-up, even buying motors from Toyota for their hybrid offerings. Toyota rightfully won the hearts and minds of the eco-conscious consumer, although some have argued that the Prius fell somewhat into the "eco-luxury" position of other categories like organic foods and organic cotton that command a price premium for an environmentally superior product, a factor that creates some market resistance and impedes the widespread adoption of these offerings. By essentially creating a new must-have category with little-to-no competition, Toyota created a run-away environmental success story and defied these traditional marketplace category pressures, with a long waiting list of conscientious consumers willing to pay a price premium and to "vote with their dollars" for the Prius. With the uncertainty of the oil industry and increasing price-pressures on traditional fuel, the Prius has become a sound choice for both the eco-driven consumer and the eco-ambivilent consumer who is motivated simply by saving money on gas. The individual purchasing motivation becomes ultimately irrelevant however, as both decisions result in improved environmental outcomes, an ideal situation for proponents of sustainability. When eco-technologies can penetrate the market in a way that becomes almost invisible to the average consumer, everyone wins.

A deep analysis of the auto industry reveals many complexities that make generalizations very difficult, and make a one-sentence quote in an article very subject to false interpretation. I hope that some of the above commentary more clearly highlights my position on the matter.
Posted by Marc_Alt (1 comment )
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What is your Green Corporate Mission?
True. Business organizations are the first to understand their consumer behavior. They will go all out to promote thier "green face" to customers who demand it. They will certainly incorporate "green concerns" in thier corporate mission.

The need of the hour is to create a structured platform for Green corporates to educate them of their roles and responsibilities . One such platform was just created last week at <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> . Green Corporate network is creating the right "PR office" for organizations seeking to green. You don't need to be a Wal-Mart or a Toyota to advertize your genuine Green steps to protect the environment!

Posted by ckdenv (1 comment )
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