Walking the Green Walk

I could blog for hours about the first day of the Portland Communicators Conference; however, I’m focusing this post on the breakout session that I found the most inspiring. It was Communicating Green to Customers, presented by Helen Neville of New Seasons Market. Her presentation seemed to focus on the company’s policies in environmentalism, sustainability, local community support, and transparency, as well as how she communicates those and some of the snags New Seasons Market run up against. What inspired me most is that New Seasons Market is a for-profit company but with an incredibly strong mission. This is an excellent example of a company that walks the green walk instead of just talking it.

This company is the definition of green. Just some of its dozens of green practices are: a strong bike culture that includes bike racks inside the store for customers, a green roof on one of their stores, and recycle bins outside the stores for items not collected at curbside.

Helen brought up a great point about the company’s definition of sustainability. One of her supervisors answered the question at a presentation, “What is sustainability?” with, “I’ll tell you what sustainability is not. Sustainability is not people in Oregon going hungry.” New Seasons Markets provides excellent health benefits, which include mental health and dental, to all employees who work at least one shift a week. This draws a lot of artists and other community members who would otherwise go uninsured as employees, which New Seasons Market appreciates.

Something that goes hand-in-hand with its sustainability is its commitment to help Oregonians. They have a communications initiative to encourage customers to shop at a farmers market one weekend instead of at a grocery store. This hurts business in the short-term but proves New Seasons’ values. It also donate 10 percent of its post-tax profits to charities in Oregon.

Its transparency is remarkable. She said at least twice that New Seasons encourages customers to “vote with their dollars.” It includes colored labels on most of their produce indicating levels of “green,” such as organic or local. It carries food available at most grocery stores, such as mainstream cereal in an attempt to serve all customers in each neighborhood store. This makes sense when you realize it’s more green to walk to get Frosted Flakes than to drive across town.

So how do they communicate all these great practices to its customers? The main vehicle is through employees, who are obviously pretty loyal based on the way they’re treated. Some employees even respond to customer questions in extensive, researched emails on topics such as how to buy locally. (I think this is similar to blogging about topic’s related to your client’s industry that doesn’t directly plug it.) It also has a good Web site and use store signage. It uses primarily earned media as opposed to advertising.

Helen addressed some of New Seasons Market’s challenges with being green. One was switching its delivery vehicles’ bags from paper to plastic. This was after extensive research that proved producing plastic bags emits 40 percent less carbon pollution than producing paper ones, but you can see how some customers would object to this. It conducted excellent crisis communication when they discovered that gift cards made of corn actually were not compostable as the vendor had promised. New Seasons alerted all customers that it was sorry, but the customers would need to throw their gift cards away.

Whether you share the same values of New Seasons Market, this is an excellent lesson to all communicators that your policies’ effects on your brand and credibility needs to be taken seriously. I hope some of you are as inspired by this post as I was by her presentation.

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