From gun safety to climate change, brands are speaking out as never before on areas of deep public concern. That includes the retail industry. Slowly but surely, retailers are beginning to promote themselves as safe spaces for shoppers concerned about their own health, human rights and the environment. The latest example is the popular discount grocer Aldi.
Retailers push the envelope
Retailer activism is especially evident in the retailer-manufacturer field, where companies like Levi-Strauss can reach deep into their supply chains to foster social progress.
The retailer activism movement also manifests itself in other, often overlapping shades.
One involves creating safe spaces for customers. In 2013, Starbucks began requesting gun owners to keep their weapons out of its stores, regardless of permissive local laws.
Yet another type of retailer activism manifests itself in the sustainability field. For example, Ikea and Walmart brushed aside the political wars over renewable energy and became early adopters of rooftop solar. In doing so, they helped to mainstream controversial new technology and normalize it in the public consciousness.
Aldi speaks up for the bees
That normalization process can take a generation or two (renewable energy is still a political hot potato, for that matter). Nevertheless, the end result is that consumers begin to recognize and appreciate behavior by retailers that are in the vanguard of change.
Consumers also begin to expect more from retailers that lag behind.
A new policy on pollinator protection announced by the U.S. division of Germany’s Aldi supermarket chain illustrates how consumer expectations and retailer activism can work together and accelerate change.
Consumers are becoming more aware of the role of bees and other pollinators in the global food supply, and Aldi’s new policy supports that concern.
The new policy also bolsters Aldi’s brand reputation as it expands its range of organic products.
Last week, Aldi U.S. announced that it will encourage its suppliers to find alternatives to harmful pesticides, specifically those containing the compounds neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos (CPS), which have been linked to impacts on bee and bird health.
“As a leading grocery retailer, at Aldi U.S., we want to make sure the way we do business also supports our communities, our people and our world,” the company explained in a press release.
Under the new policy, Aldi will encourage its suppliers to practice strategies designed to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.
The new policy also prevails upon suppliers to avoid jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Aldi admonishes them to refrain from using “regrettable substitutes” for pesticides containing neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos.
The limits of retailer activism
Aldi is not the first supermarket chain urging growers to begin transitioning out of harmful pesticides. Whole Foods set a high bar several years ago.
Few if any supermarket chains followed in Whole Foods’s footsteps, until last year. That’s when Costco announced a pollinator policy that is very similar to Aldi’s.
Like Aldi, Costco mentions neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos by name. The company also includes similar guidance on following laws that require the use of certain chemicals.
In addition, the Costco policy issues the same admonition against using “regrettable substitutes.”
That language may seem tepid, but it is highly suggestive. The phrase “regrettable substitutes” is well known in the public health field. It refers to a whack-a-mole situation in which some chemicals are banned, only to be replaced by others that are just as harmful — or even worse.
More to the point, the phrase echoes the “respectfully request” language deployed earlier this year by Kroger and other retailers seeking legislative action on gun safety. It is an indication that supermarket chains are reaching the limits of their ability to change the behavior of their suppliers. They are poised to ally themselves with grassroots activists, and lobby for broad changes in federal policy.
Going beyond bees
The use of hazardous substances in agriculture is just one issue in which retailers could begin to flex their muscles in alliance with other activists.
In another recent development on that score, Lowe’s has just announced an update to its chemical policy.
In addition to banning the use of certain chemicals in carpeting and other goods, Lowe’s will no longer carry pesticides containing neonicotinoids, with the exception of those used for trees and shrubs. The new policy also bans the use of neonicotinoids by the company’s plant suppliers.
With Aldi and Lowe’s now on board, it will be interesting to see if other leading retailers announce similar policies on pesticides - and use their voices to help advocate for changes in federal policy.
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