image Last week, when I was in New York with a group of customers on a learning trip, the Thursday FiR 337 discussed the greenwashing issue. That is, misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices. A practice that perhaps will become impossible thanks to social media. Compare the Wal-Mart kerfuffle two years ago, when the retailer’s blogger outreach  "Working families" was revealed as a fake created by Wal-Mart and their PR agency.

Interestingly enough, last Monday our learning group made a visit to Saatchi and Saatchi X (shopper marketing) at their Manhattan offices. A nice surprice for us was the (too) brief session with Kate Cook from Saatchi S – S as in Sustainability. Kate told us about Birth of BLUE, and the Wal-Mart Personal Sustainability Practice case created by Act Now Productions. She provided it as a backgrounder to Saatchi and Saatchis January acquisition of Act Now, which was renamed into Saatchi S.

When I heard about that, my initial reaction was that it might very well be a greenwashing case. Saatchi just wants to appear "green", and the same goes for Wal-Mart. So, as a way to clear my mind I decided to to some further research. And now it seems to me that Saatchi S rather wants to create BLUE. When green is about enviromentalism, BLUE is about putting people at the center. More specifically, people as consumers. Most likely social media will be an important factor in this process, albeit not  as a core strategy (yet :-).

A key person in the story is Adam Werbach. In 1996 he became the youngest national (US) president of the Sierra Club. In 1998 he started Act Now Productions, and in 2006 he accepted a request from senior leaders at Wal-Mart to help them with their sustainability efforts. The same year Adam was also elected as a member of the international board of Greenpeace. Of course his decision to work for Wal-Mart was heavily criticized. As he examplifies in his speech to the Commonwealth club earlier this month (pdf, audio):

A widely circulated piece critiquing my decision to work with Wal-Mart was entitled “The Death of Integrity.” Another one, published just this week, has a more visceral title: “Adam Werbach makes me puke.” A blogger named Cliff Schector wrote a piece called, “Adam Werbach: Wal-Mart’s New Fraud Salesman.” “What Werbach needs to realize is that Wal-Mart is beyond improvement and yes, beyond redemption. Those who really are forward-thinking need to stop working with this man, certainly stop paying him and I would daresay, if you really believe in what you say you do, stop returning his phone calls. He has chosen to sell out. It doesn’t mean we all have to join him in Wonderland."

Tonight I invite you to join me in Wonderland.

In short, Adam’s creative idea was to motivate every Wal-Mart associate (1.3M in the US, almost 2M world wide) into a Personal Sustainability Practice (PSP). Thus allowing individuals to decide what sustainability means and what she or he could do about it. I suggest that you (pro)consume Adam’s Commonwealth speech (pdf, audio), because it explains in great details the situation, thoughts, lessons, surprises, and effects. Some of the results, regarding the Wal-Mart associates, include that they:

  • lost more than 60 tons of weight;
  • walked/biked/swam more than 380,000 miles
  • created over 16,000 “Idea Groups” to support one another around Personal Sustainability; and
  • quit or reduced smoking, with more than 10,000 Associates to date making a healthier change!   
  • recycled more than 5 million pounds of aluminum, plastic, and paper

Kate also added a note about one of the interesting side effects. One associate suggested that the lamps in the stores’ Coke vending machines should be switched off at nights. I do not remember how much energy that saved, but it was a huge number.

Another important aspect here is the "consumer approach", where of course Saatchi & Saatchi comes in handy. Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, said in their news release:

Social change is part of Saatchi & Saatchi’s DNA. We are committed to world-changing ideas, to creating Lovemarks, to understanding the shopper, and to helping build a sustainable future across all dimensions: economic, environmental, social and cultural.

One might look at that as greenwashing. But personally I have for a long time argued that marketers, here an agency with expertise in (post) modern consumer behavior, understand people better than most  legislators, educators, environmentalists, etc. Furthermore, it is my impression that it is exactly that kind of expertice Adam Warbach wants to exploit for sustainability purposes. Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart) have said "The secret of successful retailing is to give your customers what they want". My intepretation is that Adam’s approach is to make consumers really want sustainability. This could perhaps be compared with the different strategy (I believe) taken by The Natural Step, who employ organizational and educational approaches.

image Future will tell, and I truly hope we are right. Still, I am not totally convinced. I could not find a word about sustainability in the "help/about section" of the Wal-Mart web site, but a search for "sustainability" linked to Wal-Mart Save Money, Live Better.

In any case, it sounds great to be BLUE. And I bet, given the marketing machines involved here, that we will see a lot of BLUE videos, plug-ins, widgets, gadgets, apps, and more. Or, are they already out there?

(by the way BLUE and PSP are not very smart brand names from a Internet search perspective, and I personally do not like commercial appropriation of core words in our languages, i.e, the name of a color or a digit).