For This Fall, Green Is In

Bostoncom_business_jpegStores hope new products will lure crowds of eco-conscious teens headed back to school

By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff,  August 17, 2007

Stores are hoping that parents and students will add one more item to
this year’s back-to-school shopping list: saving the planet.

Merchants are trying to capitalize on the growing eco-conscious
movement by promoting green products this season, from $70 solar
backpacks that power iPods and cellphones to pens made of recycled
materials including car headlights and plastic shopping bags.

The
latest twist on school supplies offers consumers a feel-good option but
also enables retailers to charge a premium for environmentally friendly
products. One sleek bulletin board made from 100 percent recycled
rubber costs about $88 at Staples, while a more traditional bulletin
board with aluminum frame carries a price tag of $42.

"This is
the next frontier in the green movement," said Madison Riley, an
analyst for retail consultancy Kurt Salmon Associates. "Retailers
during back-to-school season can cater to customer desires and capture
a higher price, and higher margin, from those who are willing to spend
more on products sensitive to the environment."

Whether consumers
are willing to pay more remains to be seen. A survey done by market
research firm NPD Group indicated that 76 percent of respondents said
they planned to spend $500 or less on back-to-school shopping, down 5
percent from last year.

Discount behemoth Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is sticking to its low prices as it appeals to a green crowd.

In
recent weeks, Wal-Mart began hawking a $350 eco-friendly computer, the
Everex Impact, which consumes fewer watts on average than traditional
computers. Its manufacturer says the computer can save about $10 a
month in electricity costs.

Wal-Mart also recently created a
back-to-college group on the social networking site Facebook, where
students can download a shopping list and link to Wal-Mart’s website
promoting "earth-friendly" products, such as compact fluorescent light
bulbs and "Eco Recycled Shag" rugs, made from recycled cotton.

According
to a recent JupiterResearch "Green Teens" report, 38 percent of online
teens are "concerned" about the environment, and 15 percent are "hard
core" that is, they are serious about green living. The survey
suggested marketers should aim for this 15 percent because they are
popular, influential, and engaged with online media and communications:
about 45 percent of these green teens said they like to be the first to
know about new products and they have about $100 of discretionary
spending on average a month.

Office Depot Inc.,
meanwhile, is pushing its Solar Backpacks as one of the top picks for
back to school, and featuring them on displays near the entrance of
stores. The bags sport a charger powered by a panel built into the
outside of the backpack that converts solar energy into electrical
energy. The charger can plug into cellphones, MP3 players, and
Blackberrys. But you’ll have to spend a lot of time in the sun — about
four hours — to yield about 20 minutes of talk time on a cellphone,
for example. Office Depot markets the bag as good for "on-the-go
students."

At an Office Depot in Woburn this week, Debbie
Rodenhiser looked skeptically at the backpack along with her daughter
as they shopped for school supplies. Rodenhiser said she’d buy green
products if the recycled and traditional supplies were side by side on
the shelves. But otherwise, she’s not going to seek them out.

Some
merchants, at the very least, are making it easier for consumers to
figure out which products are eco-friendly. Yesterday Recreational
Equipment Inc. (REI) unveiled an initiative for select brands to carry
an eco-sensitive label for clothes and other merchandise manufactured
with a high percentage of recycled, rapidly renewable or organic fibers.

Meanwhile, Staples Inc.
of Framingham is trying to make the choice clear with a new EcoEasy
label in coming months, helping customers identify environmentally
friendly products in stores, catalogs, and online. Top green school
products include a $13 pack of 12 Zebra Jimnie Clip Retractable
Ballpoint pens made of 75 percent recycled content, and a $5 ream of
acid-free EarthChoice copy paper, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and endorsed by the Rainforest Alliance.

"Back
to school gives us even more opportunity to green up, and we’re trying
to focus on products that are really credible," said Mark Buckley,
Staples vice president of environmental affairs.

Merchants, he
said, need to work harder to change consumers perception that recycled
products don’t perform as well as traditional supplies — concerns
expressed by customers like Rodenhiser: "If I sharpen a pencil made out
of recycled newspaper, is it going to last as long as a regular one?"

For
Staples and other office supply companies, expanding green products
isn’t just an attempt to cater to consumer tastes. It’s also a matter,
to some extent, of survival.

"We obviously rely on forestry resources and if they’re not around, we’re not going to be in business," Buckley said.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at [email protected].

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