The Business of Good Intentions

Sustainable merchandise has become standard-issue for big-box retailers eager to raise their profile (and their cash flow), but rarely do these goods withstand strict ecoscrutiny. In a recent survey of more than a thousand consumer products, the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice found all but one guilty of green­washing. Target might have done the same with its new, self-described “environmentally responsible” outdoor collection—stamp a “recyclable” triangle on a birdhouse made in China, and call it a day. Instead, the company partnered with MIO, a young Philadelphia design firm for which sustainability is an article of faith. “It was a natural fit,” says Gina Sprenger, Target’s senior vice president of merchandising.

For the resulting six items (due out next month), the designers took into consideration not just green materials but also manufacturing, packaging, and the products’ life cycles. An LED garden light is powered by solar energy instead of electricity. A watering can’s recycled plastic shell was sourced in Wisconsin rather than Asia. A composter minimizes waste, not only with its slim design but through spare packaging (it comes wrapped in a belly band and a string). “We didn’t want to just jump in and say, ‘Yeah, we want Target to use the MIO brand so they can feel green or portray that they are going green,’” says Isaac Salm, who founded MIO with his younger brother, Jaime, eight years ago. “We were very adamant about trying to understand how committed they were. And they were committed.”

But overturning nearly a century of corporate practice was no small task. Target, like most multibillion-dollar companies, has its bottom lines and thick layers of bureaucracies, not to mention a long roster of vendors with their own ideas about ethics. Each product required some sort of compromise. A set of bamboo gardening tools, for instance, was manufactured in China, giving them the Target-­friendly price of $7.99 but significantly diminishing their environmental credibility. “This,” Jaime says with a sigh, “is something Target asked us to do.”

And yet, to hear Isaac tell it, it was a small act of surrender given the larger trade-offs. “If we were to measure success for MIO in this specific project, it would be the fact that Target is already thinking a little bit differently about how they’re sourcing and how and where they’re manufacturing,” he says. “For us, that’s as big as it gets.”

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