Earth Day vs. Wal-Mart

Earth Day vs. Wal-Mart

Approximately 500 million people across the globe will participate in Earth Day activities this year.  And 176 million people will walk into a Wal-Mart this week.  And the next week.

Most of you reading this are likely well aware of Wal-Mart’s sustainability activities, but I’ve outlined a few of the more high-impact efforts here:

  • Wal-Mart intends to reduce its global plastic shopping bag waste by an average of 33 percent per store by 2013.  That will eliminate approximately 135 million pounds of plastic waste globally, avoid the production of approximately 290,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year from existing stores; and avoid the energy consumption equivalent to 678,000 barrels of oil.
  • Now that Wal-Mart sells only concentrated liquid laundry detergent in its U.S. stores, they will essentially save, over a three-year period, more than 400 million gallons of water, more than 95 million pounds of plastic resin and more than 125 million pounds of cardboard.
  • On October 3, 2007, Wal-Mart reached its goal to sell 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) three months ahead of schedule. Each ENERGY STAR® CFL uses 75 percent less energy than a traditional bulb, prevents 450 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, and saves an estimated $30 or more per bulb in utility costs over its lifetime. By selling 100 million CFLs, they saved people more than $3 billion on energy costs over the life of the bulbs.

By comparison, here are some stats about Earth Day:

  • The first Earth Day, held in 1970, boasted 20 million participants in America (nearly 10% of the population) and put a spotlight on the environmental issues of the day (the Great Lakes were being written off for dead, major cities were covered in thick smog from pollution and rivers burned.)  That spotlight is regarded as the tipping point for Nixon’s creation of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and a host of other laws that govern how we treat/manage the environment today.
  • Thanks to those laws, average lead levels in children’s blood declined by 75% between 1970 and 1993, oil spills in the nation’s waters declined from 22 million gallons per year in the mid-1970’s to 2 million gallons in 1992, and, through recycling and composting, domestic waste recovery for other uses has increased from 7.1% by weight in 1970 to 21.7% in 1993.
  • Today, millions of people of all ages across the globe come together to do community projects, ranging from planting trees  to this year’s Green Generation Campaign, which aims to create a carbon-free future, engender a feeling of personal responsibility for the environment and create green jobs.

So the question I’ve been pondering is:  who makes the bigger impact?  And the question really boils down to:  what’s more important — awareness or behavior change?  And which entity has the ability to best accomplish one or both?

The answer may be a tie. Clearly without the first Earth Day we’d still be dealing with even worse environmental problems than we are today.  And the fact that there’s a recognized Day to put the spotlight on the environment, and a way for people to come out and Do Something, even if for only a day, is a huge awareness generator.  But who’s the target?  Are the participants in Earth Day celebrations the existing Deep Green consumer (and depending on whether you look at NMI’s LOHAS consumer, Earthsense’s segmentation model or our Eco Pulse model this is 10-20% of the American population).  In other words, has Earth Day become a way for those who already believe in environmental causes to simply revel in their own philosophies and hang out with others who agree with them?

I suspect so.  By contrast, Wal-Mart reaches the mainstream consumer — the remaining 80% of the American population.  And by pushing CFL’s, talking to those consumers about issues of energy and packaging, and literally forcing suppliers to reduce waste, they impact folks who would likely never be caught dead at an Earth Day event.

In short, consumer activism and events that put a spotlight on social issues are terribly important…but the day-in, day-out decisions of manufacturers and retailers really make behavior change happen.  By making it so that a consumer can’t buy a product in a wasteful package, Wal-Mart causes consumers to change behaviors without the consumer/buyer of the product having to be overly educated and deliberate about the decision.

Let’s keep the spotlight on…but let’s also encourage and support manufacturers and retailers to take the lead on these issues to create ongoing — and perhaps unwitting — long-term behavior change.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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