COVER

CATERING TO NEW CONCERNS

THE DEBATE ABOUT GREEN PRODUCTS

DAVID TODD April 30 1990
COVER

CATERING TO NEW CONCERNS

THE DEBATE ABOUT GREEN PRODUCTS

DAVID TODD April 30 1990

CATERING TO NEW CONCERNS

THE DEBATE ABOUT GREEN PRODUCTS

For Edmonton homemaker Sandi Pryde, environmentalism begins in the nursery. Concerned about the pollution caused by disposable diapers, Pryde has been a regular customer of a local cloth-diaper delivery service since Storm, the first of her four children, was born in 1981. And although Storm Pryde is now nine years old, the same service delivers diapers for Pryde’s five-monthold daughter, Spirit Rose.

Pryde, 30, whose husband is a business executive, says she wants to do more as a consumer to protect the environment and gives increasing thought to shopping for so-called environmentally friendly products. She says that she is prepared to bear some extra costs. Said Pryde:

“I’m willing to go as far as I can with this comfortably. I don’t mind sacrificing.”

Health: Pryde is not alone.

According to public opinion polls, a growing number of consumers are declaring their willingness to at least consider the health of the environment when they make purchasing decisions. And business has wasted little time in catering to their concerns. In the past year, supermarket and hardware chains have begun trying to convert shoppers to new lines of so-called green products, and manufacturers of everything from detergent to batteries have modified and repackaged goods to present a more enviroflmentally friendly face. The potential for profit is considerable. Since a new line of products was first introduced last June, the Toronto-based Loblaw supermarket chain has already generated more than $60 million in sales from its Green-product line. But environmentalists warn that, in many cases, the companies trumpeting their newfound environmental sensitivity are in fact offering products with little or no environmental benefit.

Still, recent polls have shown that mounting concern over the harm to the planet has re-

shaped consumer attitudes. In fact, 18 per cent of respondents to the 1989 Maclean’s/Decima poll rated the environment as the leading issue facing Canada today, the first time that the issue was the top concern in the six years of the

poll. And market researchers predict that ever larger numbers of consumers will soon do more than simply pay lip service to environmentalism—they will actually change their buying habits. Indeed, a 1989 survey by the Ottawabased Grocery Product Manufacturers of Canada, which represents about 150 food and beverage makers, found that 80 per cent of shoppers were willing to consider paying higher prices for environmentally safe products. Said Len Kubas, a Toronto-based retail industry consultant: “People will vote with their dollars at some point.”

Few companies have played to public environmental concerns more aggressively than Loblaw. The company markets more than 100 products under its Green label, ranging from

toilet paper bleached without chlorine to phosphate-free detergent to recycled motor oil. Said David Nichol, Loblaw International Merchants president: “To be pro-environment is sound business strategy.” Finding that competitive edge has lured other major retailers into the green market. Last fall, the Home Hardware Stores Ltd. chain of St. Jacobs, Ont., with nearly 1,000 outlets across Canada, began marketing 40 of its low-toxicity paints and household cleaners under a new Earth Care logo. And in March, the Calgary-based grocery chain Canada Safeway Ltd. launched its Environmental Options program. Shoppers at each of Safe way’s 235 stores across Western Canada are now greeted by shelf signs that point out more than 60 different products, ranging from coffee filters to cloth diapers, that the company has deemed “environmentally sensitive.” Sherrie Dutton, Safeway communications manager, says the company opted against cre-

ating its own line of green products, choosing instead to educate consumers about the choices already available on Safeway’s shelves. Dutton added, “People recognize that putting baking soda in a green box does not change the product.”

Dumps: In the race to win over environmentally conscious consumers, some major manufacturers have shifted their marketing engines into high gear. Last September, Procter & Gamble Inc. of Toronto began offering six of its popular cleaning products, including Liquid Tide and Mr. Clean, in one-litre plastic pouches, called Enviro-Paks, so that consumers could refill their plastic detergent bottles at home. Since the pouches contain much less plastic than the bottles, company officials pre-

dieted that the new system would reduce the amount of plastic being thrown into garbage dumps across Canada by 300 tons annually. Three months later, Procter’s leading Canadian competitor, Toronto-based Lever Brothers Inc., trumpeted a new $20-million environmental action plan that included the elimination of phosphates—chemicals linked to excessive algae growth in lakes and rivers—from the company’s leading brand, Sunlight laundry detergent.

Hyperbole: While many consumers have embraced the new consumer products, environmental groups have responded to them with skepticism.

Michael Manolson, executive director of Toronto-based Greenpeace Canada, said that while a few green goods represent encouraging steps forward, many represent little more than industry hyperbole. Among the companies that have aroused the ire of activists is Eveready Canada Inc., which has started promoting its Energizer batteries as “environmentally safer.”

Company officials say that, over the past five years, they have reduced the mercury content of their batteries from one per cent to .025 per cent of total weight and predict that the move will improve their competitive position. But Greenpeace campaigner Gordon Perks said that simply cutting down on mercury—which has been linked to nervous disorders in humans, and is one of several toxic metals used

in batteries—does not make Ever-

eady’s product substantially safer.

And even Loblaw’s successful Green line campaign has been dogged by controversy almost from its start. Colin Isaacs, executive director of the Toronto-based environmental group Pollution Probe resigned last summer

after many associates complained of the organization’s endorsement of several Loblaw’s products, including a disposable diaper. Most environmental advocates contend that only cloth diapers are truly less harmful to the environment. And many activists have complained that Loblaw’s Green line includes products devoid of any environmental benefit what-

soever, such as toxic cleaners carrying the Green label simply because they contain bittertasting additives meant to discourage children from swallowing them. “To call a product like that ‘green’ is the ultimate in marketing gall,” said Jenny Hillard, who chairs the Ottawa-

based Consumers’ Association of Canada environmental committee.

Trash: Some companies, meanwhile, already appear to be backing away from their products’ environmental claims. Mobil Corp. of New York City recently announced it would drop the word “degradable” from packages in its line of Hefty plastic trash bags because, while the bags are intended to break down under sunlight, they end up in landfill sites covered from the sun. Environment Canada also is trying to offer consumers guidance on green purchasing. Under the department’s Environmental Choice program, manufacturers can apply to carry the federal EcoLogo—three doves entwined in the shape of a maple leaf—on products that meet established criteria for environmental soundness. So far, the government has moved cautiously. In the past two years, board members have set criteria for only 10 product categories, including cloth diapers and recycled paper products. And only 10 individual products, ^ including three brands of wao ter-based paint and two z brands of recycled motor oil, ~ have received certification to carry the EcoLogo. Clearly,

as companies rush to color

profits green, they and their consumers may find the business of saving the planet at the supermarket checkout more complicated than it first appeared.

DAVID TODD