Walmart, the largest grocery retailer in the U.S., elicits varied reactions from naturals industry leaders. But the retail Goliath is tough to ignore as it moves into the natural and organic realm.
One undaunted company is braving the behemoth's stigma by partnering with Walmart's new Marketside format stores, which are smaller, independently operated shops focusing more on fresh products, naturals and organics. Jeffrey Hollender, president and "chief inspired protagonist" of Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation, says the decision to sell the company's products in the Marketside stores was not an easy one.
Here, he explains how the naturals industry has influenced Walmart, how his company decided to deal with the giant and what he hopes will come out of the partnership.
Q: Seventh Generation has a reputation as a socially and environmentally conscious company. When did you begin to consider working with Walmart?
A: I have been in a dialogue with Walmart for several years to encourage and support their overall sustainability initiative. Our decision to work with them on the development of a Seventh Generation brand opportunity at Marketside was not the purpose of the dialogue but an indirect outcome.
As part of our desire to better understand and counsel the corporate social and environmental practices of some of the world's largest retailers, we took a close look at Walmart's performance and it scored very highly due to its recent leadership efforts in the field of sustainability.
Q: What reservations did you have?
A: Our largest concern was the impact and impression a decision to sell the Seventh Generation brand at Marketside would have on our retail partners, and by extension our loyal following in the natural channel.
Q: What motivations did you have?
A: Our motivation is always to position Seventh Generation in retail environments where we are relevant to the shopper. Marketside represents a new retail concept that allows us to be where our busy and mindful consumers shop.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received?
A: The feedback has been very positive, especially from consumers who appreciated my candid blog posts in the Inspired Protagonist that discussed the deliberations and decision to sell Seventh Generation at Marketside. Naturally, there were some who disagreed with our decision, but even they appreciated the opportunity to participate in the dialogue. Some saw Seventh Generation's availability at Marketside as the first step in a move to sell at Walmart, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Q: What can naturals retailers learn from Walmart?
A: I think the opportunity runs both ways. Walmart is a gigantic retailer with the potential to generate and create positive change from sustainability, environmental and human-health perspectives. It has begun to use its value and supply chain to create change that would simply not happen otherwise. Whether it's pushing the laundry industry to concentrate its products, encouraging consumers to purchase energy-efficient lighting or asking its suppliers to avoid Uzbek cotton because of the country's child-labor practices, Walmart has increasingly used its influence to generate positive change.
Q: Why do you think Walmart is doing this?
A: In part, Walmart has followed and been inspired by the natural products industry. There is a need to shift from making stuff that is "less bad" to creating products and services that seek to be "all good." This is especially critical for any company that strives to be sustainable. An authentically sustainable company does more than merely conserve and maintain; it enriches and embellishes. It embraces a whole new mindset that moves from thinking incrementally about doing less harm to thinking expansively about leaving things better than we found them.