The project is an online shopping website where customers can easily identify and purchase products that have been given Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Leaders badge. Almost 3,000 items have earned the distinction. Products are selected based on a sustainability index that is created with the Sustainability Consortium, an independent nonprofit driven to increasing sales of sustainable products.
The sustainability index is calculated using surveys Wal-Mart distributed to suppliers. Stores that receive the best scores in terms of environmentally conscious and humanitarian production methods are chosen for the new website.
“We’ve done the heavy lifting to empower customers to put their money where their heart is,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of sustainability, in a press release last week.
The corporation, which sold nearly half-a-trillion dollars worth of merchandise in 2014, according to the Fortune 500 website, might be using the push for sustainability as a way to improve its less-than-pristine reputation. For the past four years, the store has been the worst-scoring store on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Critics cite problems with low wages, employee health benefits and reported links to sweatshops.
“It just seems like they’re trying to paint over who they really are,” IU senior Madison Dawes said.
This might be a common perception, Rebecca Slotegraaf, an expert on marketing strategies in the Kelley School of Business, said.
“This kind of marketing attempt can have two kinds of impacts,” Slotegraaf said. “Typically when a company or brand engages in environmentally sustainable actions, it will normally improve public perception about the brand, but the company’s past actions continue to play a considerable role. If they have a poor reputation, consumers might view the sustainability initiative as green-washing.”
By “green-washing,” Slotegraaf means the company would be pretending to be environmentally active, but they only want to appear eco-friendly to promote their brand. Slotegraaf said when consumers suspect a company to be partaking in this branding, it can harm the store’s reputation.
“It’s important for a corporation to engage in activities that are actually costly to them in order to show that they’re serious about investing in the environment,” Slotegraaf said. “It needs to be a tangible investment so that consumers start to trust them.”
Amrou Awaysheh, Kelley School of Business professor, said he thinks the Sustainability Leaders Shop is a step in the right direction.
“One of the problems that we have in sustainability is consumer information,” he said. “Consumers aren’t informed enough about where their products and services come from. Nobody wants to buy coffee or a T-shirt that was made by slaves or children in sweatshops, but people often claim ignorance or just genuinely don’t know any better.”
Awaysheh, whose research focuses on sustainable development, said he believes that due to Wal-Mart’s position as one of the leading retailers in the world, this move towards more conscientious shopping could have widespread effect.
“Any time you start to measure something like this, people start competing against it,” Awaysheh said. “Nobody wants to be the company that’s producing the highest levels of CO2.”
More importantly, he said, nobody wants to shop at the company that’s producing the highest levels of CO2.
“Companies today are really starting to care more about their environmental impact because the type of consumers they’re targeting care more about the company’s trustworthiness and the environment,” Slotegraaf said. “People in their upper 20s and 30s care quite a bit, and they’re willing to spend the money on the more sustainable product. College students like the idea, but they can’t always afford it.”
Freshman Matt Lang said he mainly shops at Wal-Mart because of the low prices.
“I go occasionally because everything is really cheap,” Lang said. “But if something was labeled as more sustainable, I’d probably be more likely to buy it if it wasn’t too much more expensive.”
Dawes remains ?unconvinced.
“In my mind, they’d be better off just owning up to the fact that they’re a terrible company instead of trying to act like they’re doing something good,” she said.