Posts Tagged ‘Wal-Mart’
Starbucks is spending big ad bucks to gain the upper hand in its coffee confrontation with McDonald’s McCafe. What’s important to me about this duel is the false — and ultimately unsustainable — choice this campaign sets up. (UPDATE: McDonald’s announces huge promotional blitz for McCafe.)
According to Ad Age:
The high-end coffee retailer is breaking a series of long form, full-page newspaper ads Sunday (May 3), designed to tell the brand’s “story” while warning consumers about the dangers of trading down. It’s all part of its effort to combat consumer perception about its prices and separate itself from McDonald’s expected mass-market assault for its McCafe launch. Starbucks’ print ads, designed on burlap-sack backgrounds, have headlines such as “It’s not what you’re buying, it’s what you’re buying into.” The ads lay out what separates Starbucks from the competition, such as its practice of buying fair-trade beans and providing health care for employees who work more than 20 hours a week.
Living in Portland, Ore., I can tell you that Starbucks doesn’t separate itself from the competition on the basis of fair-trade, health care or other laudatory practices. That is, if you consider Starbucks’ competition to also include the locally owned, independent coffee merchants and cafes, which we in Portland enjoy throughout our great city.
In the battle of national, publicly owned retail chains, mom & pop’s and larger independents are a complete after-thought. And yet they are the ones who suffer most, along with the communities that are so much better off for having them around. Think Wal-Mart and its devastating impact on local economies and small local businesses as it tries to mow down big-box competitors like Target. The loss of the local independents are simply collateral damage in the national and global business wars.
Assuming I had no other options, I would choose Starbucks over McDonald’s because it’s a more socially and environmentally responsible corporation. That’s what Starbucks wants to hear. What they don’t want to hear is that I actually have dozens of great coffee options and none of them involve McDonald’s or Starbucks. My choices are local and they’re sustainable. I don’t care to choose between who’s less bad. I want to support the business owners who genuinely care about my community because this is their community, too. Large publicly traded corporations ruled by the financial bottom line are “dead ends,” as one socially responsible investment advisor I know asserts. Starbucks may be more responsible than McDonald’s, but that doesn’t make them sustainable.
To borrow the Starbucks advertising punch line, what I’m “buying into” is local.
I find it difficult to avoid the topic of Wal-Mart when speaking of sustainability and marketing. The company came up again today at a breakfast presentation by two professors of business from the University of Portland, sponsored by the Oregon Natural Step Network. And once again I find myself bristling at the notion of Wal-Mart playing any part in the ultimate sustainability solutions for our planet.
Earlier this month, I asked the question, “Is a green Wal-Mart good enough?” Author and big-box retail critic Stacy Mitchell certainly doesn’t think so. In a post for Beacon Broadside last Friday, Mitchell says, “The best case scenario for Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiative is to make a highly polluting operation somewhat less so.”
She dismisses most greenwashing efforts as “clumsy and transparent,” but acknowledges that Wal-Mart is different. The company, she says, “has developed a far more sophisticated, and ultimately much more dangerous, approach to manipulating environmental sentiment for its own expansion and profit.”
Thanks to Jessica at Beacon Broadside for the heads up.
By now you’re probably aware of Wal-Mart’s efforts to green its business practices and its image. If you haven’t, you probably will soon. The company that a business professor I recently met called the 13th largest economy in the world has launched an advertising onslaught tied to Earth Month. According to Wal-Mart’s news release, its national advertising campaign includes print, television, radio and online ads and a 16-page insert in May issues of several consumer magazines. Brandweek says the company calls it “the most comprehensive environmental sustainability campaign” in its history.
No less of an environmentalist than Paul Hawken, speaking at his book-tour event in Portland last year, said Wal-Mart was indeed serious and sincere about sustainability. The professor I mentioned supports Hawken’s assessment. She is among a group of academics taking part in Wal-Mart’s green initiatives and is a regular visitor to Wal-Mart’s home in Bentonville, Ark. The company’s new-found green zeal is apparent on its website:
Wal-Mart’s environmental goals are simple and straightforward: to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain our natural resources and the environment.
What to make of all this? This is Wal-Mart we’re talking about, the company so many, including me, have good reasons to despise. I’m on the board of a Portland nonprofit that actively supports locally owned, independent businesses and encourages people within our community to do the same. This in the face of out-of-town big-box retailers — Wal-Mart being the poster child — that have decimated so many local independent businesses and left their communities poorer for it.
Still, if Wal-Mart — given its staggering size — is successful in using only renewable energy, producing zero waste and greening its supply chain and the products it sells, it would have an enormously positive impact on the global environment. Or so it would seem.
Something, however, doesn’t add up for me. Green or no, Wal-Mart hasn’t backed off using low prices to beat its competition (including the Mom & Pops in your town). The message it’s sending is you can have it all. “Save Money. Live Better.” — it’s new slogan promises. Wal-Mart will drive its suppliers to go greener, but it will still expect the lowest possible prices from them. That protects its profit margins and enables its customers (in theory) to save money. But someone or something has to pay for Wal-Mart’s margins and our low prices — as has always been the case.
What do you think? If Wal-Mart achieves its environmental sustainability goals, will it have earned your admiration, maybe even turned you into a customer? Is going green enough? Or do you, like me, view sustainability as far more than going green? What about the matters of social and economic equity? Wal-Mart’s lower prices and business practices mean lower wages, loss of independent businesses and the community diversity they bring and the leakage of dollars out of local communities and into the coffers of Wal-Mart headquarters. Should we just chalk that up to the free market doing its thing?
“He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart,” the cover of September’s Fast Company magazine shouts.
The story inside doesn’t quite pay off the cover tease, but it offers a fascinating look at the life of Adam Werbach. Or at least what it’s been like since he decided to take on Wal-Mart as a client. That alone isn’t newsworthy. But the plot thickens when you recall or learn that Werbach is the former wunderkind president of Sierra Club and once called Wal-Mart “a new breed of toxin.” After a very public falling out with the environmental movement, Werbach was approached by Wal-Mart to help them with their now much-publicized sustainability initiatives. He eventually agreed. And in the past year his consulting firm has grown from eight to 45 employees, mainly to handle the Wal-Mart work.
The article gets to the heart — and soul — of one of the many contentious debates within the environmental movement. Are environmentalists better advised to become corporate insiders to move business toward greater sustainability? Or do they need to remain outsiders to a consumption-based economy that by definition is unsustainable and needs radical overhauling? Perhaps that choice isn’t as stark for the environmentalist who weighs whether to go to work for a progressive company such as Clif Bar. But when it’s the hated Wal-Mart, well, that’s a line most won’t cross. Had Werbach taken on just about any other corporation in America as a client, he wouldn’t be nearly as reviled by his former environmentalist kin.
While I haven’t walked in Werbach’s shoes, I can tell you this: If I had been approached with the same offer from Wal-Mart, I sure as hell hope I would have run away faster than it takes Wal-Mart to earn its first million dollars each morning.
How about you? Is Wal-Mart “beyond redemption”? Would you have stayed in the environmental movement and tried to make it more effective, rather than walk away like Werbach? Or would you have taken the Wal-Mart gig and figure on making a bigger difference there?
These are my questions.
P.S. Thanks to The Triple Bottom Line Blog for the tip-off on this article.