Before he gave a lecture on green design at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) center in Philadelphia, Marc Alt, the center’s co-founder, sat down for an interview with Jeffrey Hill of Next American City. In their conversation, Alt spoke about the new, trendy environmental focus of many American businesses. Read on to find out why Alt gave an unlikely corporation—Wal-Mart—some green thumbs up.
NAC: What is the media’s role and responsibility in the business-to-consumer information exchange?
Marc Alt: The business press, in general, tends to be a bit skeptical of the true motivations of companies. A key corporate strategy is to appear as a responsible global citizen and a green company. Virtually every Fortune 500 company is publishing a corporate/social responsibility report. They want to be seen as an ethical company – treating their suppliers and employees fairly, sourcing responsibly… How much of that is green-washing versus substance of change is the real question.
NAC: What is “green-washing?”
MA: It’s highlighting an environmental initiative that your company is doing that, in effect, hides or takes away the larger impact that your company is essentially having on the world. So for instance, a company might say “We’re releasing this new ethanol SUV,” and the fact of the matter is that the primary benefit that they’re advertising is just a minor increase in fuel efficiency, whereas the history of their company and their entire product line is actually the opposite mindset. It’s giving your company a ‘green halo.’ It’s P.R. Every company is guilty of doing it to some extent, and sometimes these companies expect to be rewarded for doing anything green and that we should celebrate these baby steps. Other people feel that in the state of the world, as it is now, massive systemic change is necessary and that highlighting these small changes creates an illusion that we’re making more progress than we actually are.
NAC: That seems relevant in politics, too. All three presidential candidates have green agendas. All three support research for plug-in hybrids and giving companies rewards for making green changes. If it’s a part of a bi-partisan economic plan, how does going green benefit the economy and why is it recognized by both parties as essential?
MA: Well, the big talk now in Congress is legislation centered on carbon taxation. In some form or another there is eventually going to be a tax on carbon, and a likely model is going to be a “cap and trade” system where big companies are allowed to pollute so much and if they need to exceed that they can actually buy emissions allowances from other companies that are a lot more efficient. Some people think it’s a flawed system, because the big companies like GE or Exxon-Mobil can just pay more to go about business-as-usual. It’s the same philosophy as carbon off-setting. I think the problem is that as a country, we’re so deeply embedded in the way we source materials, the way things are made, and the amount of energy and materials we use that investing in renewable energy is not going at a quick enough pace to have any sort of effective change. I can say that at least this country is making an effort. In other countries, like China… they’re building a new coal-fire power plant a week, if not, more than one a week. It’s all to support this incredible, global supply chain and economy that we’ve created. There’s no accounting for how much energy it takes to produce the stuff that we buy as a consumer culture.
NAC: Do you think there will come a point in time where Americans won’t be able to afford the less efficient lifestyle, that making environmentally responsible changes will be parallel with affordability?
MA: Yes. A lot of people have said if you want a green lifestyle, it’s going to be expensive. It’s one of the resistance points for companies going green. They think Americans won’t pay more for essentially the same product. If it’s a matter of ‘choose one or the other,’ they’re going to go with the less-expensive choice regardless and they’re not going to be motivated enough to select green products. Companies have to re-evaluate how they do business in the world. I firmly believe in the power of big business, more than I do in the government to actually change the way things are done, the way things are made and the way things are sold.
NAC: What is one of the best ideas you’ve heard from big business in making effective changes toward environmental accountability?
MA: Good question. Well, as much as people like to vilify Wal-Mart, a deeply-troubled company, contributor to sprawl, they do have to be given a little bit of credit for revolutionizing the entire way products are produced and packaged. Since they instituted their consumer packaging product scorecard in the beginning of February, the largest companies in the world, the Proctor and Gambles and the Unilevers of the world have had to dramatically rethink the way that they produce and package in order to live up to Wal-Mart’s standards. Wal-mart is the world’s biggest customer and they’ve single-handedly changed the way packaging is looked at and now 65,000+ companies and distributors have to account for their carbon footprint. It’s an interesting phenomenon. That’s exciting to me, despite all the other things they are criticized for, this is the framework for the systemic change we need.
NAC: What’s the worst?
MA: I don’t know, I tend to focus on the positive. G.M. just went to the market with a line of products they call “eco-friendly,” they had a very long commercial during the super bowl about it. The fact of the matter is, what they are proposing is such a small shift it almost doesn’t matter. For some reason, the automobile industry in this country is way behind in the environmental agenda. They’re going at a dinosaur pace in waking up to reality. Even though Toyota’s Prius has been on the market for years now, still, Ford and GM have not learned a lesson and as a result, their market shares are suffering and Toyota enjoys the comfort of having one of the largest in the world. Innovation is stiffled by these deeply-imbedded beareaucratic systems of product manufacturing, research and development. It’s a problem.
For more information:
Check out Marc Alt’s Website – Marc Alt + Partners
Read Wal-Mart’s Packaging Scorecard
Philadelphia AIGA – The Professional Association for Design website