Walmart’s Sustainability Leaders label is a missed brand story opportunity

Carolyn McMaster | March 17, 2015

The green marketing world was abuzz last week about the unveiling of Walmart’s new Sustainability Leaders label and the online shopping portal featuring products made by companies that qualify for it. Grist published an analysis that calls it out-and-out greenwashing, and the comments section quickly filled with strong opinions. (It has since been edited to a manageable dozen as of this writing.)

The program is half a step forward and a couple of steps back for these reasons:

Lack of transparency. It’s impossible to find out why these companies qualify—Walmart says only that they are ranked “best in class” in Walmart’s own Sustainability Index scorecard program, which was developed by the Sustainability Consortium. (The Grist story covers this issue in detail.) People don’t want another research project, yet the company says, “We encourage customers to take the next step by also doing their own research and learning as much as they can….”

Confusing messaging. It’s a product label, but it is not about the product, it’s about the company that produces it. Even though the label says “Made by Sustainability Leaders,” and Walmart has clear language saying the label is not a verification of product sustainability, the inference that the product itself is more sustainable than others is unavoidable.

No clear story. There really isn’t a sustainability story at all. Walmart has no narrative that places the program in context or that gives people an emotional connection to sustainability or the companies that are sustainability leaders. And Walmart’s overall sustainability story is problematic, at least for those who are knowledgeable about sustainability, so the company can’t rely on that for cover.

The opportunity: tell a great susty story
It’s in telling a great story that Walmart has the potential to turn the Sustainability Leaders program into a winning strategy. (They could just look to their competitor, Costco, for inspiration.) Right now, it comes off as an ecolabeling scheme so mired in corporate complexities and aimed at the lowest common denominator that all the potential life is sucked out of it.

Yes, the program does point shoppers to products made by companies that are sustainability leaders. However, it does nothing to contribute to their understanding of sustainability issues or help them make informed purchase decisions—barriers that Walmart says its customers face.

Walmart obviously needs to provide full transparency about the ratings and much clearer messaging. It can also celebrate Sustainability Leaders brands and tell their stories, provide point-of-sale facts about the program and brands, and chart the vision for the program. Don’t dumb it down, be smart and be fun. And above all, Walmart needs to walk its talk, integrating sustainability into the entire company and never using it as a marketing gimmick.

  1. Thanks for these updates. Always good to keep an eye on what the big dogs are up to… even if it too often looks like too little. Interesting how the right message and storyline can transform any sequence of events. That’s good PR and marketing consulting!

  2. […] issue that emerged in comments about Walmart’s new Sustainability Leaders program is that people have different definitions of greenwashing. One I thing we can all agree on: if […]

  3. […] “more lessons about sustainability communications from Walmart” category: in thinking about my earlier post on the topic, I was reminded just how important it is to consider context—a close friend of […]

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