Where Green Business Needs to Be

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The word “green” has been taken advantage of. Mugged, even – stripped of its worth. To be fair, at the dawn of what some ironically call the “Green Era,” green was as ambiguous as it is today: referring to a general awareness of the impacts our behavior has on the environment and a willingness to change our behavior to lessen those impacts. But then green became popularized, and companies who weren’t necessarily interested in changing how they do things to benefit the environment became green to stay in the “in” crowd. Now green is somewhat ubiquitous. We expect companies to be green, and if they’re not, we write them off as ignorant and irrelevant.

Since green has become a standard of coolness, however – and since being green means changing the way we do business at our own cost to benefit a greater good – why haven’t we seen many radical changes in the last decade? While there’s been a massive attitude shift toward environmental awareness, we’ve yet to see a fundamental shift toward truly “green” operations.

Take the grocery business, for example. In many grocery stores, the most noticeable shift toward green-ish living has been a larger organic produce selection, expanded bulk organics section, and more organic options in the middle of the store. While that’s definite positive progress toward healthier food standards, it’s not progress toward energy reduction and sustainability.

That’s in part because shifting toward energy reduction is costly for larger companies. It’s simple economics. Implementing higher standards (renewable energy sources, recycling programs, all paper bags) is expensive when a company has more than, say, 1,000 storefronts. The more practical solution for larger players in the grocery industry (and any industry) is to adopt green policies that don’t mandate costly initiatives, but instead establish the general awareness we spoke of earlier by, say, encouraging the use of renewable bags or getting a bus stop in front of the store.

Again, while those are positive changes, they aren’t the changes that drive innovation in the industry – that “change the playing field,” so to speak. By nature, the companies that dominate our industries typically aren’t nimble enough to swap tires instead of reinventing the wheel. In the grocery industry, the noticeable changes have yet to account for plastic bag waste, poor recycling rates, and packaging waste. That’s because it’s more economical to remain marketable enough for “green-conscious” people without having to conceptually remodel their entire business. Sell enough renewable bags and offer enough organic selection, and you’ll likely maintain your green customer base with product availability and convenience – because what’s more convenient for the end-user, a store with strong green operations that’s three miles away, or a store around the corner with a comparable food selection?

This brings to mind a quote from Marc Gunther, from his 21 October 2010 article Big Business’ Big Innovation Problem: “I [wonder] whether the emerging orthodoxy of green business – one that is willing to settle for incremental changes by big companies, and clever but insubstantial breakthroughs by small ones—is going to get us where we need to go.”

in.gredients’ package-free grocery store will debut a few steps ahead of the industry in Spring 2011. While we’ll serve as a model for what sustainable, low-impact business can look like, we likely won’t have the influence to change the industry as a whole. We will, however, showcase a “substantial breakthrough.” We hope our breakthrough can help those who can drive innovation at a high level get the industry where it needs to go.

Written by Brian Nunnery

November 2, 2010 at 4:02 pm

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