Recently I was in the market for a new laptop, so I headed over to Best Buy and a few other places to check out their selections. And of course since I’m in the business of sustainability, I was looking for a bit of education on “green” electronics: which manufacturers were leading and lagging in this area, and which PCs I should be considering for energy savings, recycled materials and recycling programs, and reduced or eliminated toxic material like PCBs?

Sure, I could have just checked out Greenpeace’s Electronics Report, but I wanted to go through the typical buyer process and see what I could learn. To my surprise, Best Buy had no information on the subject… not on signage, and not when I asked an associate. While I later found a program on their website called “Greener Together” buried in their Corporate Responsibility section, I didn’t see any evidence of it in store. At the other end of the spectrum, it wasn’t hard at the Apple store to learn more about “the world’s greenest lineup of notebooks.”

I often hear from executives, “we don’t think the market is ready for sustainability. It’s not coming up in our research as an important purchase attribute.” I’d suggest that consumers can’t care about something they know nothing about. It’s the role of retail to help consumers make educated choices. Leading manufacturers should not only be demanding sustainability from their supply chains, they should also be pushing retailers — as their main customer point of contact — to help educate the market on the choices available.

A few retailers are paving the way. Marks & Spencer in the UK is probably one of the best-known examples, although US retailers are beginning to gain traction. Home Depot is my favorite US example with Eco Options, which includes a product certification program covering over 3,000 products, product labeling, in-store signage, and even a magazine. They’ve done an excellent job evaluating the entire customer experience and enabling customers to make informed purchase choices.

Other good examples are Whole Foods, the earliest pioneer in careful product selection, Staples EcoEasy program, and REI’s Ecosensitive labeling (although it’s hard to find from the home page). As much as Wal-Mart is doing in sustainability, I’m not seeing much action in customer-facing labeling or education… that said, I don’t live near one, so if you happen to have information on what Wal-Mart is doing in the customer experience I’d love to hear it.

Bottom line: embedding sustainability into the customer experience is crucial for moving the ball forward on these issues with customers. No one cares about a press release; they care that you’re making an effort to help them make smarter choices. This is how you not only attract existing values-driven buyers, but expand the entire market.

Oh, in case you’re interested, I ended up with a 15″ MacBook Pro. I’d like to say it was for all the information they provided on environmental considerations, but it’s just an unbelievably cool computer. Bye bye PCs!

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