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October 30, 2006 | Andrew Winston | Jump to: Comments (0) | Post A Comment

Climate Change: Talking to Consumers

I spent the day at the Corporate Climate Response Conference in New York City. The talks were mostly from executives from well-known companies (Wal-Mart, AMD, Ben & Jerry’s, Sun, etc) and focused on how their organizations are handling climate change. Of many recurring themes, one grabbed me — the different reasons and ways these companies engage with consumers. A few highlights:

1) Wal-Mart: Jim Stanway, Director of Project Development, described the range of new commitments and activities the giant retailer has undertaken (a similar talk to Tyler Elm’s which I wrote about here). One important initiative is the push to sell customers compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which if successful will reduce greenhouse gas emissions much more than the company’s own emissions. But Jim said some fascinating things about how important this could be for customers and the company. “Our consumers are disproportionately affected by energy costs,” he said, and “the energy dollar is a competitor for a dollar spent in the store.” He joked that “recently the energy sector did more harm to our sales than Target or Sears.” The last part may be an exaggeration, but helping customers save energy and money (so that the company doesn’t lose more ‘share of wallet’) has now become a core business issue for Wal-Mart.

2) Aveda: Mary Tkatch, Executive Director, Environmental Sustainability, discussed Aveda’s purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset the energy used its manufacturing facility in Minnesota. Aveda knows that from a life-cycle perspective, distribution is a much bigger emissions problem than manufacturing, but the company has a compelling reason to offset the manufacturing first: it gives it a way to connect to customers. As Mary said, they can put some marketing language on the bottle…something like “this shampoo is made with wind energy.” It ties the environmental action (buying RECs) to business value by making the customer connection.

3) Ben & Jerry’s: This long-time environmental leader has a range of programs like the “Lick Global Warming” Campaign, which includes Dave Matthews Band concerts and “Environmental Roadies” that travel with the band to talk about climate change. Andrea Asch, Manager Natural Resource Use, laid out a range of customer-friendly elements of the program. It’s like pure vanilla consumer marketing, with a swirl of the catchy-name style that the company has made famous…plus an environmental blend-in.

4) Whole Foods: Kathy Loftus, National Energy Manager, showed the crowd a new program the company is launching tomorrow in some regions — a way for customers to buy wind energy credits to cover their own lifestyle ($5) or their family’s ($15). It’s a simple card that with a bar code — just swipe it at the register and you’ve contributed to renewable energy development. Should be interesting to see how many people grab a card and pay for energy they can’t see or use. Will this completely ‘good deed’ purchase fly? If it would anywhere, Whole Foods is a good bet…

5) The NFL: Jack Groh, Director of the NFL Environmental Programs, described the league’s efforts to make the Super Bowl “climate neutral” mainly through tree planting events. The NFL offsets the tremendous energy use of the stadium and the NFL’s fleet of vehicles around the event. But when asked about the highly significant emissions from tens of thousands of people flying and driving to the game (and about the millions of people having super Bowl parties that could be influenced), Jack had an interesting perspective: there’s a difference between corporate responsibility and personal responsibility. It was, in some sense, the anti-“reach out to consumers” message. The point is well taken, but I can’t help feeling like Jack, on the issue of engaging consumers…and forgive me for this…punted.

The useful debate about what consumers should do aside, throughout the day we heard about companies finding ways to work with consumers in different ways, helping them reduce their energy costs, finding innovative ways to communicate with them, or just giving them the chance to live a climate-neutral life.

Given the depressing news on the front page of the New York Times today about how far we have to go to mitigate climate change, it was refreshing to hear some positive stories about bringing consumers to the table.

 

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