'LIGHT green', 'dark green' and 'deep green' are labels commonly used to describe the environmental correctness of food retailers. The Green Consumer Guide liberally applied similar labels to some of the big chains. Yet while such guides can help consumers make more informed choices, they often caricature complex realities.

A study I carried out of 12 British food retailers underlined this fact. Shades of green reflect the ability of retailers to convince us of their environmental sensitivity, rather than their degree of environmental responsibility. Communication skills are at least as relevant in earning a dark green label as sound environmental management. Companies that are able to package business initiatives in an environmentally responsible light are often more likely to get a darker rating than those companies that do not engage in 'green marketing'.

One leading firm that trumpets its environmental initiatives admitted green concerns were not an important part of its business agenda. It indicated that since a small proportion of customer complaints addressed environmental concerns, they had a low profile within the organisation. The company said that the few complaints received were mostly 'fuelled by misinformation and disinformation'. Nevertheless, this big high-street retailer was perceived by some of the green shopping guides to be a darker shade of green.

By contrast, one 'light green' company I contacted is undertaking independent research into environmentally friendly packaging and has set specific targets in reducing energy consumption. It has developed a computer program that will map the amount of packaging used by the firm and the energy needed to produce and dispose of it. In addition, it is taking the lead in an initiative to co-ordinate industry efforts to establish a standard replacing disposable transit packaging with re-usable palettes. It is reluctant to make its green initiatives public because it feels that may jeopardise the co-ordinating role it has assumed.

The paradox is that many of the firms that shout loudly about greenness are not keen to tell you what they have done to deserve that reputation. On the contrary: for those companies that engage in heavy green marketing, an interesting phenomenon develops. These firms seek media attention in order to earn a greener image. As they gain a higher profile, they may become more defensive about publicising the exact nature of their operations. As the nature of scientific evidence shifts, environmentally responsible activities today may later be found to be unsound - consider, for example, the current debate on HFCs. Not surprisingly, then, instead of being more open to queries about their activities, these firms may become more impenetrable.

Of the three food retailers that are considered leaders in environmental management, only one was willing to meet with me. After repeated efforts, the other two agreed only to brief telephone interviews. Yet one would think that with a large percentage of resources dedicated to environmental management, these 'leaders' would want to discuss their environmental policies.

On the other hand, many of the 'light green' companies were more forthcoming in offering information. Wm Low and Kwik Save, for example, spoke openly about their environmental initiatives and the reasons for undertaking them. They often acknowledged the fact that they should do more in terms of environmental management but felt constrained by the pressures imposed by increasing competition within the industry.

There are numerous arguments that could be extended to explain the willingness of light green companies to be more forthcoming with information: they may want the opportunity to defend their conservative position; they may be less aware of the downside risk associated with misleading advertising; or their lower profile among customers may allow objectionable comments to go unnoticed. For whatever reason, one would expect that firms which have dedicated a significant amount of resources to environmental management would also permit a greater extent of their operations to be open to scrutiny. Also, given the disparity in available information about the exact nature of a firm's environmental policies, one would think that a company's shade of green would be difficult to assess.

Competition from international food retailers and the economic recession seem to have focused attention on profit margins. All food retailers indicated that profits would not be compromised in order to become more ecologically friendly unless the initiative was seen to have a long-term pay-off. The perceptions of potential profits from ecologically oriented activities were not the same among retailers. Some companies that have taken environmental leadership because of a difference of opinion over the importance of green activity to long-term corporate health do not have dark green ratings.

Judging firms by simple shades of green is misleading. Firms should not be analysed according to one-dimensional criteria; there are numerous approaches to environmental management that do not lend themselves to a single-tiered rating system. For example, a food retailer can reduce its impact on the environment in a variety of ways: by reducing product and transit packaging; by managing its waste and energy consumption; by retailing 'green' product lines and organic foods; by 'ecolabelling'; by educating the public through corporate brochures; and by installing recycling points in their car parks. Many business initiatives, however, can be couched as environmental initiatives. The use of unleaded petrol and diesel in the automotive fleet, the reduction of CFCs in refrigerants, the reduction and recycling of packaging waste, and the reduction of energy consumption may be motivated mainly by business concerns - such as reducing costs or complying with legislation - instead of environmental ones.

Unfortunately, some food retailers that have taken leadership in environmental management activities actually get little credit, while others have won praise for relatively widespread ecological initiatives. It is time to recognise that a legitimate evaluation process must be developed and the information accurately collected, before a fair assessment of a firm's shade of green can be made.

The author is a doctoral student at the Centre for Management Studies at Templeton College, Oxford.

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