By Elaine Wong
Monday night's "Team Earth" panel at Advertising Week, held at The Times Center and consisting of top execs from Starbucks and Walmart, was positioned as a gathering of green minds.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, described how, on a recent trip to Rwanda, a female coffee farmer told him (through a translator) that all she wanted was a cow and some fresh milk for her children. Such insights, Schultz said, are helping the coffee giant sharpen its sustainability focus while improving how the company and its farmers cultivate and grow its coffee beans for consumers.
Rob Walton, executive committee chairman and board member of Wal-Mart Stores, likewise spoke at length about reducing its environmental impact through recent measures like a "sustainability index" for packaged-goods consumers. (Similar to the nutritional labels, Walmart's new ratings system evaluates products based on their carbon footprint.) "When informed, customers will make good choices," Walton said.
Going green, however, also has its risks. If the message doesn't come across as genuine, consumers can become cynical. "Money can buy you trial and awareness, but consumers are so smart that over time they'll see through it," Schultz said.
The Starbucks CEO also noted that in instances where a brand's sustainability story is authentic and compelling, the message will naturally spread—often via employee word of mouth and online channels. After hearing of how the Rwandan farmer wanted to provide some fresh milk for her children, Starbucks employees set up an internal cow fundraising drive, with plans to open up the effort to consumers, all without Schultz's prompting or involvement, he said. In fact, teenagers and young adults know just as much about environmental sustainability, if not more, than their adult counterparts, agreed the panelists, which included Peter Seligman of Conservational International.
Unlike Starbucks, Walmart has yet to dial up its sustainability message, but Walton said he doesn't think the big-box retailer is keeping it under wraps. "We wouldn't say we keep it private. The important thing is the focus doesn't become the message. The focus is maintained through the mission," he told moderator and CNBC Squawk Box co-anchor Carl Quintanilla.