By  on September 6, 2007

Is Wal-Mart seen as more socially conscious than organic food retailer Whole Foods?

Apparently so for college students, who ranked Wal-Mart the year's second most socially conscious brand, ahead of Whole Foods, which ranked seventh. The world's largest retailer was topped only by Ben & Jerry's in a Harris Interactive poll conducted in April for Alloy Media + Marketing.

Wal-Mart's well-publicized efforts to reduce its packaging materials and operate on renewable energy apparently helped neutralize the barrage of bad press the chain received in the past year over issues such as alleged labor law violations and challenges to the unionization of its stores in the U.S. and overseas. Ironically, three-quarters of the 1,592 students surveyed for the 2007 Alloy College Explorer study cited "fair labor practices" as most important in determining a company's social responsibility. Two-thirds said "eco-friendly" methods were most significant, and nearly as many, 63 percent, cited charitable donations as characteristic of a corporate conscience.

"Moral reasons alone are enough," Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley said of corporate efforts such as sustainability, but he also said the business can profit financially from such endeavors because it is supersized. For instance, the $345 billion retailer's new energy policies, now "pretty prevalent" in its 4,000 or so stores in the U.S., is enabling it to dim or turn off electric lighting in areas served by skylights, according to Simley.

Samantha Skey, Alloy's senior vice president of strategic marketing, acknowledged surprise that collegians credited Wal-Mart for being a socially conscious company. "They've had good press and bad press," she said. It has gotten some "scathing criticism" from students on FaceBook.com this summer and some kudos in the Alloy study for environmental initiatives, Skey noted.

Wal-Mart was one of four names new to Alloy's 2007 roster of socially aware brands, compared with 2006, a group that also included Target, which was rated fifth; Whole Foods, seventh, and Kashi, 10th. Five repeat appearances rounded out the list: Coca-Cola, placing third; Newman's Own, fourth; Yoplait, sixth; Burt's Bees, eighth, and Starbucks, ninth.

Up for grabs is $48 billion in discretionary spending among students ages 18 to 30, including $5.6 billion on apparel and shoes.

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