Right now, "incremental change" is as far as most US companies want to go, says Joel Makower, a sustainability consultant who is also cofounder and executive editor of Greener World Media Inc., in Oakland, Calif.
Most companies don't understand their full environmental impacts, he says.
Those making efforts to examine their carbon footprints often do so without transparency – essential to generating both customer support and supply-chain innovation.
At Wal-Mart, consumer transparency is largely tied in to its corporate press releases, a growing assortment of eco-labeled products, and in-store awareness campaigns. A more robust effort is the company's "Love, Earth" jewelry, which enables customers to use the Internet to map where the jewelry's gold and silver were mined and manufactured, including information on how the mines manage cyanide and waste dumps.
Since 2005 the world's largest retailer has been attempting to embed sustainability into its corporate culture. It was the first major global retailer to announce large investments in renewable energy. Wal-Mart has given its buyers greater discretion to factor in environmental considerations while innovating with suppliers on carbon emissions. But it's only suggesting – not mandating – that suppliers measure and reduce their carbon footprint on product lines limited to DVDs, toothpaste, soap, milk, beer, vacuum cleaners, and soda.
As for carbon-labeling, Wal-Mart's senior vice president of sustainability, Matt Kistler, says that he doubted existing methodologies and the Wal-Mart customer's ability to relate carbon with consumer merchandise.
"I'm not sure the consumer will ever make a purchase based on the carbon footprint," he says, "especially the mass consumer."
At apparel companies like Gap Inc., sustainability largely focuses on packaging and store construction while the conversation with the public continues to be stymied by the fact that environmentally friendly garments cost far more than most consumers are willing to pay.