Green is the New Gold



A middle-aged woman jumps into an idling car, demanding her accomplice drive her away from the scene of the crime. Stolen goods in hand, the two speed out of the vicinity of the blue and red store – only the goods aren’t stolen. Though it might seem that way from a quick glance at the bill.

There doesn’t appear to be much in common between Wal-Mart Canada’s price rollback commercials, depicting customers so in awe of the figures making up their receipt, and the company’s For the Greener Good advertising campaign, but the creative mind behind the commercials points out one common denominator.

“What they’ve heard us talk about is reduction,” says Duncan Bruce, creative director for communications firm Publicis Canada. “We’re going to take that same passion in reducing prices and we’re going to reduce our footprint.”

Bruce describes the concept for the company’s first green ad as straightforward and not overly slick, and explains language was key in communicating the company’s sustainability goals to customers and stakeholders.

In January, Wal-Mart launched the For the Greener Good advertising campaign, marketing the company’s efforts and achievements. The promotion consists of a 30-second television spot and online ads.

At the forefront of the growing trend in corporate green initiatives, Wal-Mart developed three long-term sustainability goals in 2005 to decrease the impact its retail operations have on the environment. The aim: reduce waste and power several retail locations using 100 per cent renewable energy.

Eric Bull of the Washington, D.C.-based Wal-Mart Watch says the campaign is in response to a barrage of negative publicity the corporation has received in recent years.

“They’ve opened up a few environmentally friendly stores powered by solar energy and things like this around the country,” he says. “But they’ve opened hundreds and hundreds more of the regular stores at the same time and they’re doing this all the time.”

“It’s a pretty widespread, concerted and multi-million dollar PR effort that Wal-Mart’s put on to try and improve their image, to try and make people feel a lot better about shopping at Wal-Mart,”  Bull says, “because it’s clear that a lot of people are uncomfortable with Wal-Mart and some people are very vehemently opposed to it.”

Wal-Mart Canada’s manager of corporate affairs, Karin Campbell, maintains the intent of the ad is purely informational, to communicate the company’s environmental efforts to customers and stakeholders, which she says is part of an attempt at being a good corporate citizen.

“The real motivation behind it is that we believe it makes business sense to be environmentally sustainable,” Campbell says. “And it’s something we believe in as a corporation in that we also want to provide [customers] products where they don’t have to choose based on price.”

Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, says customers respond to corporate environmental initiatives such as For the Greener Good.

“If given a choice between two products and one has a lower environmental footprint or is organic or is good for planet,” he explains, “they will want to pick the good product. The difficulty is that price does enter into it.”

While a green policy can work as a promotional tool, companies are really just fulfilling the age-old law of supply and demand by trying to meet customers’ needs, Robinson says. “Smart companies figured that out and retooled their businesses accordingly.”

He adds companies that have adapted to these changes can save money by becoming more efficient and increase earning potential.

“This is a major shift in the way that we’re going to have to look at business,” Robinson observes. “There are not just some losers in that, but there’ll be some amazing winners and opportunities. Those who figure that out will actually profit quite a bit from this carbon-constrained world.”

While companies need to communicate these initiatives, Robinson says large marketing campaigns create suspicion of “greenwashing,” where improvements are mostlycosmetic.

Wal-Mart has not revelealed the cost of the campaign and  Campbell says the company isn’t testing public reaction. Publicis’s planning department monitors all megatrends.

“We’ve been studying environmental issues, its affect on consumers’ perceptions as far as corporations are concerned,” Bruce says. “The environmental communications have been tested and are in market testing right now and they’re testing very well. People believe that they’re going to do what they say.”

Toronto-based fundraiser Ken Wyman says green initiatives take the burden of environmental responsibility off of the customer and place it back on businesses, which is a good way to encourage contemptuous consumers to continue shopping at big box stores.

“Everybody prefers a solution that other people have to implement over one that they have to do themselves,” Wyman says. “There’s been a great deal of critique that suggests that shopping-based techniques truly don’t amount to a whole lot of real change.”

Customers are becoming increasingly interested in environmentally friendly alternatives, but don’t seem to want to give up a lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to.

Now co-ordinator at Humber College in Toronto for the fundraising and volunteer management program, Wyman has worked in the non-profit sector for more than 35 years for companies such as Oxfam-Canada and says no one can say for sure whether companies are introducing these measures as a show of good conscience or purely as a publicity stunt. And while green efforts may impact the environment in a positive way, superficial changes can lead to bigger problems, he adds.

“Clearly any improvement is a good thing but if it amounts to what people refer to as greenwashing, pretending that there’s a change when there really isn’t, masking far more serious problems, it actually may make things worse.”