Sunday, January 25, 2009

The rise of boring and the next big recovery...

Today the New York Times has an article on Wal-Marts green initiative. While I am not a big fan of Wal-Mart, I am not a big fan places like Whole Foods either. However, I am going to say that Wal-Mart is more important that Whole Foods if we are to tackle our environmental challenges.

The article focuses on the impact that Wal-Mart has on suppliers and by insisting on Green changes they impact the product mix for all stores. GE and Proctor & Gamble acquiesced to Wal-Marts need for CFLs and detergent sold as concentrates. They also revamped their shipping strategy to make shipping 25% more efficient. Now this isn't sexy stuff, but boring stuff that makes a huge difference. Wal-Mart is moving in the right direction, and moving everyone else too. The same thing happened with Home Depot as well on the CFL issue. This particular paragraph struck me:

Under Mr. Scott, who is retiring this month at the age of 59, the company that democratized consumption in the United States — enabling working-class families to buy former luxuries like inexpensive flat-screen televisions, down comforters and porterhouse steaks — has begun to democratize environmental sustainability.

The word democratize is interesting in this context since it means bringing to the masses, but democratize also has another meaning of favoring social equality, or not snobbish. And that there is the leverage point, the green movement has to stop looking down on the masses and start understanding the masses, and existing with the masses. Whole Foods and their ilk tend to be about snobbishness, we need to start thinking in terms of green as looking sideways at all levels.

A conceit I play in my regular life is that I describe myself as working class, which in many ways is a ridiculous statement given my background and employment. But it's not in my world view or my general actions. I tend to buy mass market goods, frequent yard sales and Craigslist and dress more frumpy than I need to. I also believe that everyone is trying to do the best they can given their efforts until proven otherwise. I make an effort to talk to the security guards at work, the janitors, the sales clerks, etc because my life is in their hands as theirs in mine. If we understand the constraints that people live under, we can understand why they buy what they do. Some of it is social pressure, some of it economic, some of it is taste.

But aside from the reactionaries, most people given a chance to buy something better for the environment will, but they don't want to be forced into a green or green beans decision. If Wal-Mart is able to bring cost effective green to the masses and make it assumed, then this is progress.


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