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RETAIL FUTURES: How Green Was My Valley

Green: covered by green growth or foliage1

Harkening back to a bygone era, John Ford’s 1941 Oscar winner (beating Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon to the prize – two films according to the American Film Institute that are ranked among the greatest ever made) How Green Was My Valley, based on the novel of similar name, tells the story of the Morgan family and the disintegration of a Welsh mining community foreshadowed by the growing slag heap that eventually engulfs the valley.  In the opening sequence the valley is described through the eyes of a young Huw Morgan: “Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful.”

However (like the novel and film) our planet is fast losing its greenness.  According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the latest 2008 edition of their biannual Living Planet Report we are consuming the resources provided by the Earth’s natural systems much too fast – faster than they can be replenished.  Just as reckless spending is causing recession, so reckless consumption is depleting the world’s natural capital to a point where we are endangering our future prosperity.  As the Director-General of WWF International puts it: “The recent downturn in the global economy is a stark reminder of the consequences of living beyond our means.  But the possibility of financial recession pales in comparison to the looming ecological credit crunch.”

As our demands continue to escalate, driven by the relentless growth in human population, consumption, urbanization and globalization our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 per cent.  If our demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our current lifestyles.  The world’s leading scientists warn that we have less than ten years to avoid the worst-case scenarios projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, established by the UN in 1988 it shared the Nobel Peace prize with Al Gore in 2007).  As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise we will soon reach critical thresholds triggering consequences that we cannot reverse resulting in the extinguishing of our pale blue dot2.

Green: [POLITICS] advocating protection of the environment1

Ever since the beginning of the Neolithic Era (New Stone Age, circa 10,000 BCE) as homo sapiens evolved from nomadic tribes of hunter gatherers to more permanently settled agrarian societies (based on the clearing of land, agriculture and domestication of animals and plants) have we been putting a growing ecological “footprint” on the planet’s resources.  It is sobering to note that most of Western Europe is deforested – natural woodland covers just 2.5% of present day England.  Even relatively small, primitive communities could produce mind boggling amounts of waste over time as illustrated by the discovery of middens (archaeological term that describes any kind of feature containing waste products relating to day-to-day human life – the Whaleback Shell Midden in Maine for example is 30 feet deep and over 1,500 feet long and wide).  As we now know, we all leave an ecological footprint.  However it is only since 1986 that our collective footprint we has exceeded the biocapacity of our planet and has done so every year since.

It has only been in the last 200 years that we have begun to consider seriously the sustainability of our planet and the finite nature of the earth’s resources.  Early concerns centered on population growth and control – an early influential work was An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798, a later example being the Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972 (updated in 2004, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update).

A more recent approach to sustainability has been one of conservation and the application of science to develop alternative technologies (renewable, recyclable, etc. – often called “clean” or “green” tech).  Although the environmental movement has been around for well over 100 years with the founding of the Sierra Club in 1892, it has only been in the last 30 years that it has gained considerable influence.  Firstly, political influence with the founding of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972, and the UK Green Party in 1973 (the Greens, a pan European alliance of Green Parties, hold 46 seats in the current European parliament).  Secondly, and probably more significantly, commercial influence across a wide range of industries, for example financial services – Goldman Sachs (Sustain, 2004) and retailing – Walmart (Sustainability 360, 2005), Marks & Spencer (Plan A, 2007) and Tesco (Sustainable Consumption Institute, 2007).  If this appears to be retailers jumping on the band wagon, then we must give credit to some of the retail pioneers that based their entire business model from day one on sustainability such as Patagonia 1972, The Body Shop 1976, and Whole Foods Market 1980.

Unlike the Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age, circa 2.6 million years BCE), where several human species existed, only one human species (Homo Sapiens) reached the Neolithic Era.  Having survived the ensuing Bronze, Iron and Middle Ages, let us hope we can make it beyond the Industrial Revolution (Industrial Age or Modern Era, mid 1700s) into the promise of the Space (1957) and Information Ages (19723).

Green: made with little environmental harm1

For most of human evolution our food supply could be characterized as organic.  It has been only in the last century that a significant amount of synthetic chemicals, processing and genetic modification has been introduced to the food supply.  Today this type of food is labeled conventional though organic food has been the convention for most of our history.  The term organic farming was coined by Lord Northbourne in his book Look to the Land published in 1940.  Due to increasing consumer demand for health and environmental reasons organic food production has had growth rates of around 20% a year since the early 1990s, far ahead of the rest of the food industry.  As a result of the proliferation of organic products, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the National Organic Program (NOP) which was made law in October 2002.  The NOP covers fresh and processed agricultural food products but does not cover non-food products that may be sold as organic, including textiles (e.g. organic cotton) and cosmetics (e.g. organic shampoo).

For non-food products, the EPA published the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry in 1998 by Dr. Paul Anastas (father of Green Chemistry – currently Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at Yale University – recently nominated by President Obama to lead the EPA’s Office of Research and Development).  The Twelve Principles have subsequently been the foundation for numerous initiatives including the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) in their recent publication Best Practices in Product Chemicals Management in the Retail Industry (containing several retailer case studies it was encouraging to find several SAP customers including Apple, Boots, REI, Staples and Walmart).  Faced with growing demands to identify and disclose the potentially harmful chemical ingredients in the products they are selling and to substitute chemicals of concern, innovative retailers are incorporating product chemicals management systems into their corporate sustainability strategies.  One example, which was show cased at the recent RILA Sustainability Conference, is Walmart’s use of the GreenWERCS tool that will help its suppliers rate their products and compare their score against the industry average.  Suppliers are able to experiment with product ingredients to see what alternatives can reduce their environmental impact encouraging changes in formulations to create more sustainable products.

In conjunction with the rise of organic and green products has been the need for eco certification and labeling (over 300 eco labels are currently listed at  The latest development in this trend has been carbon labeling.  The world’s first carbon label which shows a product’s carbon footprint (from production and distribution to consumption and disposal) was introduced in the UK in 2006 by the Carbon Trust.  Tesco has launched range of 20 products such as orange juice and washing powder with a carbon label.  Another initiative is the Product Carbon Footprint (PCF) Project which involves ten European companies (again with good representation by SAP retail customers including dm-drogerie markt, REWE Group, Tchibo, Tengelmann and T-Mobile) working towards an international standard methodology for PCF assessment.  At their recent PCF World Forum held in Berlin in September 2009, Walmart presented their Sustainability Index (initially a sustainability assessment of 15 questions to their top suppliers) and Sustainability Consortium (administered by Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas) which is currently undertaking a global survey of all eco labels.

Green: not ripe – unripe or not mature1

While it is not hard to envision how software applications could enable end-to-end business processes for sustainability – such as eco certification, labeling and compliance – it is still an emerging market.  In emerging markets there is a lot of uncertainty as demand for the product, the global economy, and legislation are unknown.  Companies in an emerging industry tend to derive little or no profit while investing in research, development and product introduction.  However the last 12 months has seen frenetic activity in the IT industry as companies have responded to the growing demand for and opportunities in software solutions for sustainability.  Not least has been SAP who acquired Clear Standards, a carbon management solution provider, and developed a Sustainability Map (containing a number of solutions including Clear Standards which has been renamed Carbon Impact).

As the market for these solutions matures it will become increasingly challenging for retailers to determine a coherent strategy and roadmap for their green initiatives.  At the recent RILA Sustainability Conference there were already more than 50 vendors with solutions that could potentially touch every single business process a retailer operates.  The SAP Sustainability Map certainly helps, but in order to facilitate a better understanding of what is out there (as well as where the gaps are), I have found it convenient to develop a three dimensional matrix or cube to help place where these solutions could potentially fit in a retailer’s efforts.

Along the first dimension are a retailer’s key assets that it leverages to compete in the market place: Channels/Buildings, Products, Supply Chain, Technology, People, etc.  Along the second dimension are the key vectors that impact sustainability: Energy, Carbon (closely linked to energy but not exclusively, e.g. deforestation), Water, Waste, Health & Safety, etc.  Finally, along the third dimension are the key business processes a retailer must execute efficiently: Design, Production/Construction, Operation, Compliance and Reporting.  Obviously these are macro categories which can be further decomposed such as Channels (store, catalog, Internet) & Buildings (stores, warehouses, offices), Energy (HVAC, lighting, refrigeration, power), etc.  Additionally, there could be more categories in the future but for the time being these seem to be big building blocks to start with.

Green: [FINANCE] money (slang)1

There is no doubt that the green economy will eventually be big business.  The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) operates the Green Economy Initiative (GEI) which is designed to assist governments in “greening” their economies by reshaping and refocusing policies, investments and spending towards a range of sectors, such as clean technologies, renewable energies, water services, green transportation, waste management, green buildings and sustainable agriculture and forests.  Mean while in the private sector Al Gore is well on his way to becoming the first carbon billionaire and Tom Siebel has corralled a constellation of stars to sit on the board of his start up C3.

Green business opportunities have driven large increases in the number of products making environmental claims (up 79% over last year) and the amount of green advertising (almost tripling since 2006).  Greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.  According to TerraChoice (an environmental marketing firm) more than 98% of “green” products committed at least one of the Seven Sins of Greenwashing such as the Sin of Irrelevance – e.g. products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago or the Sin of Lesser of Two Evils – e.g. organic cigarettes, environmentally friendly pesticides or non-toxic bleach.  In response to these issues, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims to prevent the false or misleading use of environmental terms in product advertising and marketing and reduce consumer confusion.  Although compliance to the guides is voluntary, the FTC may take corrective action under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which makes unlawful deceptive acts and practices in or affecting commerce, and has already taken action in a number of cases involving alleged deceptive or unsubstantiated environmental advertising claims.

The pace of green job creation is likely to accelerate in the years ahead.  A global transition to a low-carbon and sustainable economy could create large numbers of green jobs across many sectors of the economy, and indeed could become an engine of development.  A recent report Green Jobs: Working for People and the Environment, produced by the Worldwatch Institute, examines the impact of an emerging global “green economy” on the world.  Efforts to tackle climate change could result in the creation of millions of new “green jobs” in the coming decades as the global market for environmental products and services is projected to double from US$1,370 billion (1.37 trillion) per year at present to US$2,740 billion (2.74 trillion) by 2020, according to a study cited in the report.

Counter balancing this view is the recently updated Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition published biannually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) which projects over the next ten years (2008-2018) of the 20 fastest growing occupations in the US economy (as well the 20 top occupations that will generate the most new jobs) half are related to healthcare which is experiencing rapid growth, due in large part to the aging of the baby-boom generation who will require more medical care.  Interestingly enough computer applications software engineers are also in the top 20 rankings of fastest growing and most new jobs (they also have the highest median annual wage).

Green: innocent – naive and lacking experience1

I’ll leave the last words to Huw Morgan: “In those days, the black slag – the waste of the coalpits – had only begun to cover the side of our hill, not yet enough to mar the countryside nor blacken the beauty of our village.  For the colliery had only begun to poke its skinny black fingers through the green.”

Within a lifetime, the valley was no more.

Post Script

My apologies (again) for the length of this blog.  It was meant to be a collection brief observations of the RILA Sustainability Conference in October 2009 which I had hoped to publish last year.  As I put my thoughts down I found the topics to be considerably broader and deeper than originally thought – and in reality this blog only scratches the surface.  As some of you may concur, like a properly designed and written software application, it would be remiss to not attempt to have a more integrated, holistic view.

  1. Definition from the Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © 2009 Microsoft Corporation.
  2. Photograph of the Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from a record distance of 3.7 billion miles, showing it against the vastness of space. The idea for taking the distant photo and its title came from scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan whose reflections on the photo include:”The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.  Visit, yes.  Settle, not yet.  Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”
  3. With a little license, the beginning of the Information Age is given as the year SAP was founded. Alternative dates which may also be considered include:1953 (IBM 650 – first massed produced computer), 1977 (Commodore PET, Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 – first personal computers), 1989 (World Wide Web).
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  • Hi Jerry,
    Thanks for the detailed blog. It would be good to know as to what’s happening at the grass roots and how this can globally connected (using web 2.0) to make meaningful impact.
  • Gerry, great piece and with it you confirm that we live in a ocean of trends.  The latest “wave” that is building up in this ocean of trends is the green/sust wave.  This green wave seems to be shaped just like the web wave of 1998. Big names are headed for the wave, lots of PR, and extra noise, along with some real answers (like SAP’s). Surfers, like Al Gore and many others are paddling hard to get on this wave and ride this curl.

    When this green/sust “wave” reaches it maximum peak, curls out and then breakes into a ripple across the ocean of trends will the retail element of green/sust be a set of standards?  A way of life for shoppers?  Will shoppers be fed up with the topic and adopt this all as an expected element of our lives?

    And last, will this wave spawn a new, larger wave?  If so, what is the next wave? 

    PS Surfing is a green hobby…