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Marketplace Scratch Pad

Being green and quiet about it

Scott Jagow Jul 16, 2009

I need ear plugs to go to the store these days, so I won’t hear all the companies shouting at me about how good they are to the environment. Wal-Mart’s bellowing voice is growing even louder — as you probably know – it’s planning to label products with green ratings.

Marketplace’s Sam Eaton reported on this last night. Wal-Mart is telling its suppliers today that they must total up the environmental costs of making their products, and Wal-Mart plans to turn that into a rating system of some kind. From Sam’s story:

How Wal-Mart determines whether its products are sustainable is another issue. Tyson Slocum with the consumer watchdog group, Public Citizen, say the potential for green washing is huge.

TYSON SLOCUM: I’m not sure that it’s appropriate for a giant retailer like Wal-Mart to be crafting these definitions. I think we got to have an unbiased source.

Like the federal government. But Andrew Hutson at Environmental Defense says Wal-Mart’s inclusion of universities, manufacturers and competing retailers in the process gives the initiative credibility.

More from the Wall Street Journal:

The most immediate impact of Wal-Mart’s latest drive will be felt by its 100,000 suppliers, which will bear the costs of the company’s environmental mandates, at a time in which many are struggling economically…

Wal-Mart insisted there will be no exemptions. Asked what relationship Wal-Mart would maintain with suppliers that don’t supply the data, Chief Merchandising Officer John Fleming said bluntly, “We probably don’t have one.”

While it sounds like a good idea, I wonder if the ratings will a. be meaningful and b. make any sense. If Wal-Mart can create “calorie labeling” for the environment, then we might have something here.

Our team of environmental bloggers, The Greenwash Brigade, is cautiously optimistic. Janne Flisrand writes:

My job is to write about greenwash, but until the index (and the messy, messy details underlaying it) are public, it’s impossible to say whether it is or it isn’t. The big W has been making significant steps for a while, so maybe they’ll do it right. The further I read, the more hope I have, because they seem to have the right players at the table – including my hometown big box brand Target and a host of life-cycle-analysis experts.

I’ll put on my skeptical hat for a moment to go along with my ear plugs. I got into a conversation about this earlier today, and the theme was — the language around the environment and the grandstanding about it turn people off.

I was talking with my colleague, Brendan Newnam, co-host of the fabulous Dinner Party Download, and he mentioned a French chef, Alain Coumont, who has mastered an art many American companies have not — being green and quiet about it. His menu is slowing turning vegan, but he’s not telling the customers, even the staff. From Food and Wine:

Coumont wants the vegan options to succeed, and not just because they taste so good: He believes that even a partly vegan diet is healthier and more environmentally friendly. But he does not want to be known as a vegan missionary. “The vegan dishes have to be fun, and fun to eat. When we taste-test these products, we don’t tell the staff that they’re vegan,” Coumont says. “We just want to be sure they’re fantastic.”

Good advice. “Being green” might sell, but so does making good products that are also green. Everybody likes the person who does good things but doesn’t feel compelled to constantly tell the world about it.

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