I can still recall the excitement surrounding the first Earth Day in 1970. As a grade school student I was immersed in the zeal of the moment, certain that the country was ready to address all of its environmental challenges.
While Earth Day sparked a lot of progress, the intense focus on the environment began to wane after a while. Many problems were left unaddressed.
Today one senses the momentum is returning. An environmental documentary recently won an Oscar, last week's cover of Time offered a “Global Warming Survival Guide,” and even the U.S. Supreme Court just weighed in with a ruling that may spur new action on greenhouse gases.
Today, mainstream businesses — including many supermarkets — are beginning to embrace sustainability to fall in line with growing consumer interest and to achieve cost savings. This week's SN is a special theme issue that highlights the trend in each section of the magazine.
What exactly is sustainability? One popular definition describes it as the ability to meet present needs without compromising those of future generations.
Retailers are pursuing that mission with practices virtually nonexistent in their world just a few years ago. These include solar power, wind energy credits, sustainable packaging, sustainable fisheries and socially responsible products, to name just a few.
Until recently the U.S. was trailing far behind many other nations in following these directions. Even today, if you Google the words “sustainability” and “supermarket,” the top references are for European and Australian food retailers, not American ones. But some U.S. heavy hitters are stepping up to the plate, including Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Food Lion, Price Chopper and Safeway. These and other conventional supermarkets can't be expected to push too quickly in the green direction, but even a small shift represents a lot of benefit to the environment and can make a sizable impact on a chain's bottom line and image.
Yet, how can we be sure that sustainability will be sustainable, given a falloff in commitment to earlier environmental campaigns?
Stories in this week's SN provide some clues. The onus will be on suppliers and retailers to create relevant merchandise that appeals to shoppers. Consumers will embrace green products so long as these items are roughly as effective as non-green ones. They are more likely to live a green lifestyle if they feel it will become more affordable over time.
Meanwhile, supermarkets and other businesses will incorporate sustainability practices only if it makes sense for their specific operating needs. For instance, materials used in building supermarkets need to withstand extraordinary wear, which may disqualify some green construction components.
The world won't be changed overnight. Sustainability will have its best shot at longevity if retailers and consumers grow momentum gradually rather than peaking quickly and then burning out.