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Wal-Mart Sustainability Campaign Criticized

Date: March 31, 2008

Source: National Legal and Policy Center

Wal-Mart Sustainability Campaign Makes Bad Business Sense

  • Consumers Care About Low Prices for Quality Products, Not Costly and Impractical 'Green' Products.

The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) today called Wal-Mart's Earth Month sustainability campaign, touting its new lines of alleged environmentally-friendly products, a waste of time and resources.

Wal-Mart believes that aggressively pushing eco-friendly products makes good business sense because of the growing influence of environmental concerns in consumers' shopping decisions. However, surveys show that the large majority of consumers do not consider environmental factors in their purchasing decisions. America's Research Group found that only one-third of consumers care about environmentally-friendly products and only 16 percent are willing to pay extra for them. Leo J. Shapiro & Associates recently conducted a telephone survey of more than 800 consumers across the nation and found that consumers may say they want more environmentally friendly products but they don't want to spend more.

"These findings do not bode well for the future of Wal-Mart's sustainability campaign because, in many cases, its 'green' products are too costly and impractical," says John Carlisle, the director of policy at NLPC.

For instance, Wal-Mart is pushing sales of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) because they use one-third the energy of traditional incandescent bulbs and last longer. But there are serious economic drawbacks to CFL bulbs. Consumers are put off by the fact that a single CFL bulb at Wal-Mart costs $1.65 compared to just 24 cents for the incandescent bulb. Other CFLs can cost as much as $5 per bulb. CFLs are also inferior in quality and practicality to the incandescent light bulb. Even though one in five light bulbs sold are CFLs, a lower percentage of American homes - about 11 percent - have at least one bulb. The more people use CFLs, the more they see their shortcomings. For one thing, consumers do not like the dingy color of light emitted by CFL bulbs. The Color Rendering Index (CRI) measures the quality of light. A CRI of 100 is sunlight or an incandescent bulb. A CFL bulb, on the other hand, has a CRI rating in the 80s.

People are also frustrated by the fact that some CFL bulbs, like the 120-watt version, won't fit in many lamps and fixtures. Likewise, CFL bulbs do not work well in dimmers or in three-way light fixtures.

"With so many practical problems to CFL bulbs, Wal-Mart is not making a good decision in building a major marketing campaign around them," says Carlisle.

In addition, CFLs raise safety concerns because they contain mercury which can potentially pose health risks. A broken CFL may release mercury vapors that can affect a person's brain, spinal chord, kidneys and liver. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that if a CFL bulb breaks, an individual should immediately open a window to disperse vapors, not touch the area where the bulb was broken, carefully clean the area, and remove all glass fragments.

"Wal-Mart should not push products like CFL bulbs just because environmentalists deem them ecologically safe," says Carlisle. "Environmentalists are notorious for pushing 'Green-friendly' products that turn out to have their own ecological baggage."

And environmentalists are critical of Wal-Mart's CFL campaign because the company does not a have a recycling program in place that would allow consumers to conveniently dispose of the bulbs.

"Wal-Mart got to where it is today by adhering to a business model that took into account the consumer's priority to get quality products at the lowest possible price," concludes Carlisle. "This foolish 'Green' campaign is completely contrary to that model. The more Wal-Mart emphasizes so-called sustainability factors in marketing products, the more it risks undermining its competitiveness."

In December 2006, NLPC released a special report titled Wal-Mart Embraces Controversial Causes: Bid to Appease Liberal Interest Groups Will Likely Fail, Hurt Business. The 11,000-word report is authored by Carlisle and may be downloaded in PDF format at www.nlpc.org/pdfs/Wal-MartSpecial%20Report.pdf. An updated version of that report will soon be released.

NLPC promotes ethics in public life, and sponsors the Corporate Integrity Project. To learn more, visit: www.nlpc.org.

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