These days, communicating your green policy can be tricky: be too vocal and you’ll get accused of greenwash. John Ryan discovers that most retailers are taking a low-key approach instead

Walk past the Tesco Metro store just off Tottenham Court Road in London and words such as “organic” and “healthy” spring out at you from the windows. We are all fairly accustomed to this kind of marketing. There is little feeling that we are witnessing a bit of corporate do-gooding; rather that we are being offered a piece of something that might, just might, improve our lives.

On this basis, you might think retailers’ efforts at being, or at least acting, green would fall into the same camp. But frequently this is not the case. Retailers that make any kind of noise about the environment today are often characterised as indulging in greenwash. While this may not be true, it’s a label that carries a lot of cynical and negative associations.

The question therefore is, what’s a retailer that has the best of intentions to do? “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t” is a phrase that must ring round boardrooms as they debate whether going green should involve telling the world about what is being done or whether keeping schtum is the best policy.

One of the longest-serving members of the green retail community must surely be Sainsbury’s. It unveiled its ultra-green Millennium store in Greenwich, London, in 1999. It was considerably ahead of its time, with a roof covered in vegetation and a wind turbine, among other things.

While the store was lauded as ahead of the curve in terms of design, Sainsbury’s did not have any fingers pointed at it accusing it of trying to gain competitive advantage through green marketing. There can be little doubt that were the same exercise to be carried out in these jaded times, somebody would talk of greenwash.

The Millennium store has had a bit of a facelift this year, with a new turbine and rainwater recycling tanks, but little has been made of it. A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman says: “Because we’ve been doing [environmental] stuff for a number of years, it’s instilled in the company, without us feeling that we have to shout about it. When we want to do something new, we go ahead and do it and then, when we’ve done it, we’ll talk about it.”

These kinds of low-key green initiatives are increasingly becoming the norm as retailers seek to avoid unwelcome publicity about actions taken in good faith.

Ikea, for example, issued staff with folding, Ikea-branded bikes at its city centre Coventry store when it opened at the end of last year. The move was intended to enable staff to get to work without recourse to the internal combustion engine.

By any standards, this is a green strategy. It is one that is conducted across all Ikea stores, but it is also something that the retailer makes almost no noise about. Cycling to work certainly reduces carbon emissions, but its effectiveness is dependent on the number of staff who decide to use pedal-power. If few choose to do so, then accusations of green tokenism will not be far behind.

The Ikea story is in fact fairly typical of the way retailers are approaching green matters. There is a lot going on. Just take B&Q’s Halifax store, which opened earlier this month and boasts three vertical-axis wind turbines among its numerous energy-saving features, or Tesco, with its wood-framed store in Wick, Scotland. But any noise is unlikely to emanate from the retailer concerned, unless quizzed.

Yet, in spite of this subdued approach, the eco-message is out – and among retailers there can be little doubt that the green giant is Marks & Spencer. Richard Gillies, a 22-year M&S stalwart who was appointed director of the retailer’s Plan A in March, is somebody that those who move in green circles will know well. For its customers however, it is likely that the director is an eminence verte of whom they will be blissfully unaware.

Yet Gillies is the man behind the 100-point report, entitled How we do business, that hit the letterboxes of M&S shareholders at the beginning of this month. The subtext to this should perhaps be “Plan A – the story so far”.

RISING ABOVE GREENWASH

At first glance, a cynic might be inclined to say that this sails perilously close to being greenwash and trumpeting achievements rather too loudly. On closer examination however, it becomes apparent that this really is a progress report. All of the Plan A processes and gains so far have been audited by Ernst & Young. Gillies says: “We pledged to meet 100 separate Plan A commitments within five years and I’m pleased to say that we’ve already made progress on 94 of these.” Striking an appropriately low-key note, he adds: “This is a good start, but we still have lots more work to do.”

In just over a year, M&S has gone from having a lowish green profile to hitting the headlines with its eco-agenda in a way that no other retailer has done, nationally or internationally and, curiously, detractors have been few and far between. “Plan A because there is no Plan B” is good sound-bite stuff, but the reason that so few have carped about it is perhaps because M&S appears to be delivering on its goals. For those who can be bothered to plough their way through the 45-page document, there are details of everything from store construction and equipment to Oakham chicken. The latter comprises a small section in the report relating how chicken flocks in Oakham, Rutland, are being given more space to roam free. Small beer maybe, but it contributes to the creation of a green aura that is remarkably hard to find fault with.

Gillies is clear about the reasons for Plan A and for putting into the public domain gains that have been made. “As a retailer, we’re here to respond to the customer. Retailers have to respond to a societal agenda. In the market, there is always bound to be a certain amount of greenwashing,” he says. “For us, it’s a business benefit, but it’s also about benefiting our staff.”

He points out that for retailers the green option – initially and regardless of what aspect is involved – will always prove to be more expensive. There’s the rub. Being a green retailer, in the present climate, is more costly than continuing along well-worn paths. So whatever might be said about bandwagons and greenwash, any effort is likely to cost a retailer more than doing nothing, even where energy-saving is involved and with adverse comment may come additional expenditure.

Read through M&S’s eco-update and there is a sense that, in many ways, retailers may actually be ahead of their consumers. And that, although it is incumbent upon retailers to keep people informed about what they are doing, this cannot be allowed to sound over-earnest or preachy.

There is also history to consider. Owain Roberts, director at design consultancy Gensler, says: “I think there is probably a suspicion about provenance. For a long time, retailers, such as supermarkets, have had a pretty poor record when it comes to the environment. That has to be overcome before anything starts.”

So the best that retailers can hope for is that they won’t be slated for being green. The view that seems to be being taken by most is to get on with being green and make no fuss about it. That way, if queries are thrown, a retailer can demonstrate that it is not the commercial equivalent of a Viking – plundering all before it for its own ends – and that it is doing something, whether big or small.

In general, if it’s green retail credentials that people seek, then in most cases there is a web site, replete with case-studies and good intentions. So far, Marks & Spencer remains the only retailer that has managed to pull off the sleight-of-hand required to become a green entity, while at the same time raising its head above the parapet about what it is doing. As Gillies puts it: “There is always work to be done, but most of the things we talk about are fast becoming part of mainstream procurement.”

It’s not just the UK public that wants to know what’s going on. Gillies says he has had visits from Australian retailers that want to find out what is achievable – which must suggest that messages are being noted and, to an extent, understood.

Ultimately, greenwash may prove to be a phenomenon as short-lived as the first wind-turbines that powered half a checkout. Just don’t expect the post-greenwash world to be too explicit.