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Home Depot to Display an Environmental Label

By Michael Barbaro (The New York Times) - April 17, 2007

After squabbling over prices for decades, the nation’s big-box retail chains are ready to battle in a new arena: the environment.

Home Depot today will introduce a label for nearly 3,000 products, like fluorescent light bulbs that conserve electricity and natural insect killers, that promote energy conservation, sustainable forestry and clean water.

The initiative — which is expected to include 6,000 products by 2009, representing 12 percent of the chain’s sales — would become the largest green labeling program in American retailing and could persuade competitors to speed up their own plans.

And it signals that Home Depot, the country’s second-largest retailer, is joining the largest, Wal-Mart, in pursuing issues of public concern like climate change that stores have left to governments and environmental groups.

More than 90 percent of the products in the line are already on Home Depot’s shelves, but the Eco Options brand will identify them as environmentally friendly.

Home Depot executives said that as the world’s largest buyer of construction material, their company had the power to persuade thousands of suppliers, home builders and consumers to follow its lead on environment sustainability. “Who in the world has a chance to have a bigger impact on this sector than Home Depot?” said Ron Jarvis, vice president for environmental innovation at the retailer, which is based in Atlanta.

But persuading the majority of Americans to buy less polluting products could prove an uphill battle, at least for now, environmental advocates say. Decades of research have shown that consumers often say they want sustainable products but rarely purchase them. Prices tend to be higher, and consumers complain that the products do not always work as well as those they are meant to replace.

“There has not been a lot of success, frankly,” said Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, which consults with retailers like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods on how to sell environmentally sustainable products. A big exception has been organic food. But even there, Ms. Demeritt said, consumers seem to be motivated by the health benefits, not the environmental impact.

Home Depot introduced Eco Options products in Canada in 2004, where the company has fewer than 200 stores — and so far, sales there have been strong.

Mr. Jarvis said Home Depot found that “given the option of a product that performs just as well, we are seeing the consumer would rather buy something that has less of an impact on the environment,” adding, “We are just making that easier.”

The company said it had asked suppliers to produce Eco Option goods at the same prices as conventional merchandise. But it acknowledged that some products would be more expensive at the cash register, even if consumers are likely to save money over time — as in the case of the energy-efficient light bulbs.

Suppliers that qualify for the Eco Options label will be rewarded with what preferential treatment — like prominent shelf space in the nearly 2,000 Home Depot stores in the United States and aggressive marketing through weekly newspaper inserts.

Merchandise can qualify for the new line in two ways. It either meets widely accepted federal and industry standards, like the Energy Star or the Forest Stewardship Council certification process, or its environmental claims are tested and validated by an outside company, Scientific Certification Systems. Ultimately, Home Depot, rather than a third party, determines what products will receive an Eco Options label.

There is, for example, a silicone window and door sealant from General Electric that improves the energy efficiency of heating and cooling systems and reduces greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-burning electricity plants. Another product is a glass cleaner from OdoBan that has low levels of volatile organic compounds, vapors linked to health problems. And organic plant food from Miracle-Gro uses no harsh chemicals that imperil water supplies.

For Home Depot, the new program is the culmination of a nearly decade-long journey from environmental whipping boy to green darling. In the late 1990s, groups conducted repeated protests against the company, contending that it sold wood from endangered forests in countries including Chile and Indonesia.

But by 2000, Home Depot had promised to eliminate sales of lumber from environmentally sensitive areas and began giving preference to wood from forests that are managed in ways considered sound.

Since then, Home Depot has worked with environmental groups to develop a variety of green programs, like offsetting carbon emissions from its headquarters by planting thousands of trees in Atlanta.

Its changes mirror those at Wal-Mart, which was heavily criticized by environmentalists for failing to manage storm-water runoff during construction of new stores in the United States and for generating high levels of pollution in countries like China, where many of its products are manufactured. But in 2005, Wal-Mart committed itself to reduce energy use in its stores, improve its trucks’ fuel efficiency and minimize the use of packaging.

Like Home Depot, Wal-Mart is asking that suppliers develop more sustainable products. But Wal-Mart has yet to introduce a broad environmental labeling program.

It is hardly alone. Retailers have been reluctant to brand products as green because of lackluster sales. “The options offered in the past have been a little ahead of their time,” said Lawrence A. Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, an environmental group that works closely with Home Depot.

But Mr. Selzer said “what feels different today is the level of public engagement” on issues like climate change. “There is a buzz in the country right now,” he said. “The buying public is ready, willing and able.”

Even if the products do not sell briskly, environmental leaders said their presence on the shelves would begin teaching millions of shoppers about the impact of household products like weed killers and light bulbs.

“People hear about the environment, they see commercials, they attend a feel-good meeting, but at the end of the day they don’t know what to do,” Mr. Jarvis of Home Depot said. “We see educating the consumer as being the highest impact of this process.”