While speaking on consumer trends in the green economy, I’m often asked what I think of the "corporate takeover" of the organic industry. The questions are often posed in the context that factory-scale farms are compromising the spirit organic or that Wal-Mart, while going green, is could never be truly green. There’s some truth to this, and while I once shared those concerns, I’m not losing sleep over it. What is clear is that the current revolution in green is not following a black and white script.
There’s no doubt that green, be it in the form of local, organic, sustainable or socially-just consumer goods, is HOT. Even considering the lack of confidence in our national economy, the number of people willing to pay more for organic, and an entire array of green "values" products has grown from about 2% when I started my business in 1995 to over 30% today. That is revolutionary and likely faster growth than any other market segment I’m aware of. What has changed was that the green market was clearly bottom up and grassroots, driven by very committed individuals on a social mission. Today, the growth is top down and driven from corporate boardrooms responding to market forces and devoid of "authentic" social missions. Labeling this good or bad over simplifies the complexities of social change.
Let’s take organic food, where we’re seeing the most growth. Statistically we can’t deny that consumer demands are outstripping supply of US produced organic fruits and vegetables. That’s been the case for years. Whether we like it or not, if you are eating organic, it is very likely that you are eating foods from across the planet. With increasing frequency our "local at any cost" purchasing policy at my company does not always meet our needs. There isn’t always an organic local option. For example, outside of little plastic fresh pack containers at Whole Foods or your local food co-op, you cannot buy raspberries or blackberries in the US market right now; not at any cost. And trends are only heading that way. However, from my experience, corporate entry into organic has brought a beneficial scale to the growth of local and organic micro-economies here in northern Michigan. When Food For Thought started in 1995, there were very few organic farms in our area. Soon representatives of Gerber and Eden Foods started going door-to-door meeting with farmers to encourage them to make the change, while offering to buy 100% of their crop if they were organic or in transition to organic. It was their scale that allowed them to do this and stimulated an organic supply that my small company could not have done. Today, there are a number of family scale farms in our community that would not be organic had not one of these entities been willing to buy their crop while it was still on the trees. And due to that stimulus, we’ve been buying organic pears, apples and cherries from our local family farms ever since.As I write this I’m attending the Corporate Leadership and Sustainability Conference in Traverse City. Our first speaker was Dr. Chris Laszo, Co-founder, Sustainable Value Partners and author of: Sustainable Value: How the World’s Leading. He consults many global corporations on how to green their companies. As a consultant to Wal-Mart, he spoke to the positive impact they are having on the planet. It only makes sense that if Wal-Mart puts a solar panel array on the roof of every store, the cost of those panels would plummet for the rest of us and seed that industry with huge stimulus. The greening of Wal-Mart also serves a big role in bringing new ideas and green products and thinking to consumers that otherwise may not have exposure to such products. Furthermore, consumer research shows that when exposed to green or values products, consumers start down a path that moves them further into that market. (See chart) And given human nature, it’s a whole lot easier to bring the organic to the Wal-Mart shopper, than to get the Wal-Mart shopper to the farmer’s market.
What Dr. Laszo did not talk about is the unsustainable nature of the Wal-Mart business model. Retrofitting their 7,500 truck fleet to increase gas mileage, installing motion sensitive lighting in all their stores, and stocking their shelves with organic and green products has a huge impact on energy consumption and much more. However, the question is, should we be procuring our needs from a company that has 7,500 trucks on the road? It’s clearly not sustainable to ship millions of tons of cradle to grave products from around the planet to be consumed and dumped in our landfills here at home. Coffee and bananas are one thing, but do we really need organic yoga outfits made in China when they can be made closer to home? Even if Wal-Mart’s products are becoming more green, it’s not a sustainable model. Along with factory-scale farming and other global business models, the negatives will continue to include higher energy consumption, low wage jobs, sprawl, breakdown of, and loss of revenue in local communities and more.Like most issues, this is not black and white for anyone. While I would neither buy my organic products at Wal-Mart, nor encourage anyone to do so, I see the beneficial role they play as a safe point of entry for many consumers who would otherwise not be exposed to such choices. Furthermore, we’re bound to see more conversion of factory farming to organic as long as the growth in demand continues at this pace. So rather than lament the fact that the corporate world is devaluing "values" products, we will be better served by raising the bar. We can do that through education around the value of local organic and local green economies. Now that organic is a household word, lets continue to talk about social justice in the entire chain of products as is the case in Fair Trade and especially Domestic Fair Trade. Let us not demonize the Wal-Mart Shopper, but lovingly raise their awareness around areas of common concern. In the end I believe we better serve long term sustainable progression by accepting that we may need to green the way things are done today and simultaneously work to change the way those things will be done tomorrow.