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Is Wal-Mart Really Turning Green?

I have watched the plentiful news coverage about Wal-Mart’s green turn and read many opinions both skeptical and convinced. Until now I have withheld judgment.

Talk, after all, (mine included) is cheap.

But it seems increasingly clear that Wal-Mart is not…as the doubters say… just ‘greenwashing’.

How did I come to this conclusion?

Well I read a number of feature stories in the American business press, for one. And one of the common threads is that Wal-Mart has discovered that by trimming packaging, excising unnecessary waste, and maximizing energy costs they are saving tens of millions every year.

Wal-Mart’s unique business proposition is that they are the low price leader and their margins are razor-thin. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” the saying goes. And that’s truer for Wal-Mart than, say, Rolls Royce.

To its bones, Wal-Mart is a cost-cutter.

But I also keep coming across marketing efforts... ironically enough... that evidence Wal-Mart is serious in its greening.

Above is a page from a flyer from the June-July 2007 Sam’s Club Source, their magazine for members. Sam's Club is a member's only warehouse club owned by Wal-Mart. All told 40 pages of editorial and ads… including the cover… had some sort of green or organic or social responsibility messaging.

Notice first of all the three column piece at the top of the page about Sam’s Club gift cards. The plastic cards, we learn, are made from corn sugars and thereby decompose (‘renew’ the copy says), in days rather than millions of years as with an oil-based plastic.

Two years ago the main consideration from Sam’s Club when it comes to sourcing stored-value cards would have been price alone.

Below that is an ad for coffee from Sam’s Club in-house premium brand Member’s Mark. The coffee is triple certified by the Rain Forest Alliance, USDA Organic and Fair Trade.

Two years ago, the coffee buyers at Sam’s Club wouldn’t have even deigned to open a phonebook to find the numbers for the USDA Organic certification authority, much less Fair Trade and the Rain Forest Alliance.

Likewise Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart have traditionally rejected standard-issue cause-related marketing campaigns because they undercut the company’s value proposition, which was encapsulated by their long-time tagline “always the lowest price.” [Wal-Mart’s tagline has since changed to: “Save money. Live Better.”]

After all, how could they be offering the lowest price if some charity got a nickel or two?

What does this mean?

Two things:
  1. Wal-Mart is the world’s first or second largest company by sales depending on the year. In no small measure their size has painted them with an equally gigantic target. And competitors, governments, and social activists the world over take aim every day. With their green initiatives, they’re not going to please their fiercest critics. But if they can find money savings and sales advantages in turning green, your company can too.
  2. For cause marketers it means that you may have an opening… most likely with Sam’s Club… that didn’t exist before. But the cause has to be just the right shade of green and the campaign better be very well thought out. Because every day a plane-load of people with new ideas arrives in Bentonville, Arkansas and most go home disappointed.

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