Let’s define sustainability

August 25, 2011

Can green agendas by retailers and CPG move the needle with consumers if they can’t agree on a meaning of sustainability?

The sustainability term has been so bandied about by special interests and marketers it’s hard to agree on a standard definition. Yet without a clear meaning, how can retailers and CPG target and measure their efforts, and how can consumers assess their effectiveness and grow greener with them?

Sure, we share a general sense of what sustainability stands for. But there is still vast potential for 'greenwashing,' or false claims about the environmental impact of products, and that is the most significant barrier to improvements in 'environmentally friendly' consumer behavior, says the National Geographic Society, which developed global Greendex scores based on consumer surveys in 17 countries.

Their 2010 study of 17,000 consumers (with polling firm GlobeScan) placed Americans at the bottom of the scale, and Indians, Brazilians, Chinese and Mexicans at the top. Moreover, just one percent of Americans cite the environment as the most important issue facing their nation; by comparison, 37% of Chinese consumers say this.

Clearly, the U.S. could improve. The Lempert Report feels a standard definition would be something consumers could count on. 

Meanwhile, 70% of consumer goods CEOs say their companies currently focus on developing environmentally friendly products, and nearly half are committed to fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity, shows the PricewaterhouseCoopers 2011 Global CEO Survey Report. More push from the CPG side comes from Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald, who says, "I don’t believe sustainability is optional anymore….Consumers want to know what they’re buying into when they buy your brand….They want to know what that company stands for, and they want to know how that company takes care of the environment."

Among retailers, Whole Foods Market has been a sustainability leader on many fronts, from seafood sourcing to being one of the nation's top purchasers of renewable energy. A quick review of recent progress by other chains, as reported by Supermarket News, shows:

  • Kroger has slashed energy use in its stores by 30% per square foot over the past decade.
  • Fresh & Easy has brought 25 compressed-natural-gas vehicles into its distribution fleet because they produce 20% to 30% fewer emissions than comparable diesel-engine vehicles.
  • Giant Eagle has started to evaluate the sustainability practices of its wild and farmed seafood suppliers.
  • Eight Sprouts Farmers Market stores have earned GreenChill certification from the Environmental Protection Agency, out of just 61 supermarkets in the U.S. with this designation.