THE IDEA OF “GREEN” has been with us for quite some time. April 22, 1970, marked the first Earth Day celebrated in the United States. Through legislative action, a day was designated as a platform for discussion and demonstration for green events and issues. Americans came together with concern over the deterioration of the environment and the consumption of resources, demonstrating that they cared and that they were ready for stronger political action.
This event may have marked the official beginning of environmentalism and resource sustainability as part of consumer consciousness here in the United States, though numerous grassroots movements occurred during the activist days of the 1960s. Earth Day began the dialogue and brought to the mainstream issues like ozone depletion, climate change, resource depletion, toxic air, water pollution and waste management.
Why is green such a big deal now? While the movement has made somewhat steady progress, the commercial impact has been remarkably slow over a period of 30-plus years. As one example, we can trace the growth in more responsible reporting on behalf of some of the largest companies.
In 2005, 68% of the world's 250 largest corporations issued reports on their environmental performance, compared with 50% in 2002 and 35% in 1999.
Today, corporate responsibility reporting has hit the mainstream and is standard practice among corporations. In fact, corporations have created positions dedicated to managing their green efforts, with titles like corporate responsibility officer.
For all of the talk, green-influenced retail has been an extremely small piece of the economy until quite recently. What's changed? It seems that greentailing represents an inflection point on the cusp (a seminal moment in time when a market changes forever). It exhibits all of the classic trademarks, a long period of somewhat steady movement that is acted on by a series of accelerators or disruptors that drive rapid change. What are those disruptors? While there is no singular definition, the common factors are as follows:
External Factors: The film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which premiered in the spring of 2006, featured former Vice President Al Gore orating about scientific opinion on climate change and the politics and economics of global warming. Gore's subsequent concert for change and the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize has enhanced the visibility of the message.
Competitive Factors: In October 2005, Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, gave a speech titled “Twenty-First Century Leadership,” in which he outlined the company's short- and long-term commitment to make zero waste, use 100% renewable energy and sell sustainable products. Through several initiatives, Wal-Mart set in motion a trend that was quickly adopted by other retailers and is raising the bar for what it means to be green.
Internal Factors: Many companies embrace being green because it is the right thing to do. And they have done it well in advance of publicity and any obvious economic gain. This includes early pioneers like Gary Hirshberg at Stonyfield Farm and Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the large flooring supplier.
Consumer: Clearly the consumer has changed. From significant demographic factors to behavioral changes and shifting of priorities, consumers are willing to take new factors into consideration when they purchase items or determine which retailers they want to shop.
Whatever the ultimate contributors, greentailing does appear to be here to stay.
Neil Stern (left) and Willard Ander (right) are senior partners at McMillan Doolittle, one of the nation's leading retail consulting firms. Excerpted by permission from their new book, “Greentailing and Other Revolutions in Retail,” published by John Wiley & Sons.