Target scores on sustainable products

Rankings will help retail giant make product decisions

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Emboldened by consumers demanding safer, sustainable products, Target Corp. has created environmental benchmarks for thousands of popular items — from baby lotion to dish detergent.

The Minneapolis-based retail giant says it's part of a broader plan to help consumers make smarter buying decisions.

Last month, Target began collecting information from vendors supplying about 7,500 products in the household cleaning, personal care, beauty and baby-care categories. Each product will be ranked on a 100-point scale based on the sustainability of its ingredients, label transparency and overall environmental impact. The higher the score, the better.

The rankings, which were two years in the making, will help Target decide what products to stock and where to place them. Eventually, consumers may have access to the rankings.

"Today, there is no consensus on what a more-sustainable product is, especially within these categories," said Kate Heiny, Target's senior group manager of sustainability. "Developing a product standard is the first step toward expanding the selection of sustainable product choices, and not just a subset of products that are called 'natural.' "

It's also a business decision for Target and could help its bottom line. Efforts like this are gaining traction largely because "conscious consumption" is going mainstream, according to Rob Rankin, vice president and director of brand development for Clarity Coverdale Fury, a Minneapolis-based marketing agency.

"The topic of health and sustainability has hit the tipping point; it has critical mass," Rankin said. "It's moved beyond the tree-huggers and Shirley MacLaine of the '70s."

Target has partnered with the consumer website GoodGuide to gather and evaluate the information provided by vendors such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson.

"Target is a very customer-focused company, so it's a great sign that they're hearing from their customers -- mainstream American consumers -- that they want safer, healthier and more-sustainable products," said Dara O'Rourke, GoodGuide's co-founder and chief sustainability officer.

Target isn't alone.

Last year, rival Wal-Mart rolled out its own sustainability index, which tracks the environmental impact of certain products. Wal-Mart claims the information helps buyers evaluate suppliers' goods, and targets select potentially harmful chemicals that will ultimately be reduced or eliminated from its product mix.

As of mid-September, Wal-Mart's index was applied across 200 product categories, affecting more than 1,000 suppliers. By year-end, the retailer said it will expand the index to 300 product categories, and as many as 5,000 suppliers.

"We've reached an acceleration point where we are moving from measurement to results," Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke said last month.

A recent survey conducted by the agency with Mintel, a global research organization, found that 70 percent of U.S. adults are trying to make conscious decisions regarding health and wellness. Another 9 percent claim to be in control of their health and wellness already.

Rankin calls this muscular 70th percentile the "movable middle … they're looking for a way to take action. But they struggle; it's hard. They don't know what to buy. They ask themselves, 'Is this really healthy?' So if a retailer can facilitate change and help them out, the (retailer) stands to win."

The consumer wins, he said, because now "they don't have to comb through every nook and cranny of Target to do better. Target will do it for them."

But a 2012 report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics indicates mainstream retailers have a ways to go in pressuring the $60 billion personal-care product industry to improve. The San Francisco-based advocacy group ranks Whole Foods, the natural and organic grocery-store chain, as the industry leader, with Target "showing potential." (Target says it will include cosmetics in its sustainable product standards next year.)