Here a Label; There a Label

green labels.jpg

Just to make sure that I do not come off as as a sustainability Scrooge, I want to follow my last post about Wal-Mart with some comments from the cyberspace. The number of news and others articles about the Wal-Mart announcement is very large, not surprising as it is truly a big deal. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, writing on her blog in the Harvard Business Press says:

Wal-Mart's unilateral decision to put its purchasing and communication power behind going green also shows that a single company using its unique clout can accelerate public action to reduce greenhouse gases and reverse climate change.

Joel Makower, always an informed voice on issues like this sees two aspects in his summary, Walmart's Sustainability Index: The Hype and the Reality.

My assessment: Like so many things related to both Walmart and sustainability, there is both more and less going on here than meets the eye.

The whole story is only slowly taking shape. Although Wal-Mart labeled their project as creating a Sustainability Index (their capitalization), it is starting as something else. This description is taken from the remarks of Mike Duke, President and CEO of Wal-mart.

So today, we’re announcing that we will lead the creation of a Sustainability Index. The Index will bring about a more transparent supply chain, drive product innovation and, ultimately, provide consumers the information they need to assess the sustainability of products.

At least for a few years, the system will consist of the answers of a set of 15 questions being posed to every supplier to Wal-mart. Again, Joel Makower notes,

As for the 15 questions. Well, they're a start. Taken together, they set a fairly middling bar, the kinds of things that some leadership companies have been doing for a decade or more. And because they deal with the company, and not its products, they omit some fairly critical details. Among them: they don't mention toxic materials used in manufacturing or in the products themselves. They don't talk about the energy efficiency of products or their recyclability or other disposition at the end of their useful lives. One need only compare Walmart's Index to Nike's Considered Index, which goes deep into product details, to see how relatively primitive it is. There are equally good examples from several other companies.

I do not doubt the good intentions behind Wal-mart's move, but I am still concerned that the result will be perverse to the intended outcomes. Makower thinks that this is not simply a greenwashing program. Yes, but the ways it is taking off and the shape it will take, based only on these preliminary data, more or less doom it to end up as a form of greenwashing. For me, greenwashing is any form of communication that hides the reality of what is involved in the action from the actors: consumers in this case. Simply calling it an index is misleading. And using Sustainability in capital letters suggests it is really related to sustainability. It is, but only in part, and that is what constitutes greenwashing, unless Wal-Mart is very, very clear about what it is and what it isn't. And even if they are clear, I am skeptical that their customers will pay close enough attention to understand that buying only products rated as OK (whatever that will be) is not enough to preserve the environment and the social system. It will take an enormous, perhaps impossible, exercise of self-control by Wal-Mart to provide equivalent information on the critical limits of their Index. Their situation is like that of the drug ads on TV where the critical qualifiers are read at lightning speed.

A number of commentators said that this move was going to raise the consciousness of millions to sustainability, and that this is a very good thing. Yes, but. These many people may perhaps add the word sustainability to their vocabulary, but with little sense of what it is all about and, similarly, little understanding about what it takes to attain it. We are a nation of obese people in spite of all the information about the composition of the food we consume. Information can go only so far. What is needed is fundamental change in consumer behavior. Sustainability Indexes and calories counts are clearly not enough.

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