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    Sustaining Responsibility

    Being a good corporate citizen will pay off for retailers, but don't over-promise

    By Don Longo, Editor-in-Chief

    No matter what side of the global warming debate you're on, one thing's for certain: The majority of your customers believe the Earth's future is in danger due to increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere. More important, consumers are finally showing a willingness to change their buying habits -- even spending a little more for eco-friendly products or driving out of their way to shop at a store that appears to be doing its part to reduce energy consumption, recycle more and sell more organic or locally grown foods.

    In the past, American consumers often talked a better game than they played when it came to eco-friendly shopping. In poll after poll, a majority would say they preferred to buy recycled or environmentally friendly products. However, in practice, those products usually ended up sitting on store shelves gathering dust if they cost a couple of cents more or were slightly less effective than mainstream products.

    In reality, consumers considered environmentally friendly products too costly or not potent enough to meet their needs. For businesses, being eco-friendly was a good public relations tactic, but one with limited financial consequences.

    Those dynamics appear to have changed. Former Vice President Al Gore's 2006 film about global warming -- for all its hyperbole -- gave the green movement the star power it needed to catch the nation's attention. Studies have shown that as many as 86 percent of Americans now believe global warming is a crisis -- even though there is still debate over the cause or causes (for one thing, the global temperature has gotten both warmer and cooler over the past thousands of years).

    Consumers finally appear to be walking the walk with respect to the environment, according to a new report by Nielsen's Consumer Insights (http://www.nielsen.com/consumer_insight/ index.html).
    About 35 million people, or 16 percent of the adult American population, are "sustainability-conscious" consumers, according to a Natural Marketing Institute survey. And, they say they will spend up to a 20 percent premium for cleaner, greener products.

    More evidence that sustainability has transitioned from the purview of activists to that of average consumers is the fact that Internet blogs dedicated to sustainability now rank among the top 50 blogs overall, according to Nielsen BuzzMetrics.

    And, the average consumer appears to be buying into retailers' eco-friendly marketing efforts. Wal-Mart announced last November that it had reached its annual target of selling 100 million energy-efficient light bulbs ahead of schedule after heavily marketing them as a way for consumers to save money and fight global warming. The retailer sold more than 100 million compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs last year. The purchase price of a CFL is three to ten times higher than that of an incandescent lamp of the same luminous output, but this cost is recovered in energy savings and replacement costs over the bulb's lifetime.

    Our cover story reports on some of the steps convenience store retailers are taking to "Get Green." In contrast to the highly publicized efforts of retailers like Wal-Mart and Tesco -- with their huge eco-stores featuring engineering innovations to reduce energy usage and loads of in-store messaging about the importance of being Earth-friendly, c-stores appear to be addressing the sustainability issue from a more pragmatic standpoint. Of course, they hope consumers will flock to their stores because of their sensitivity to the environment. But, more importantly, retailers are seeing expense savings from their efforts to reduce their energy use. At a time when expenses are spiraling out of control in many areas of c-store operations, these savings are a welcome tonic for the bottom line.

    A note of caution: Retailers should make sure the motivation behind their eco-efforts is not a media ploy. The Nielsen report also notes that consumers are quick to catch on to so-called "greenwashing" and will boycott companies just looking to cash in on the green movement without true commitment. So if you go green, really mean it.

    For comments, contact Don Longo, Editor-in-Chief, at [email protected].

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