Wal-Mart and Patagonia, strange but true

The brands at left are indeed strange bedfellows. But with a new sustainability index and a new technology to deliver it, they and roughly 20 other companies are about to radically change the scope and delivery method of product information on the package and in the store.

For the last 44 years, since the passage of the 1966 Fair Food and Labeling Act, the information we present to consumers about food and beverage products has stayed essentially the same. Yes, if you look at this timeline, it has gotten a bit more complex and detailed, but it has remained essentially unchanged for some time.

That is about to change dramatically, and for all CPG products, not just food and beverages.

And this change is being driven, not by Uncle Sam, but by a very eclectic and unexpected mix of retailers and manufacturers, as diverse as Wal-Mart and Patagonia.

To get a hint at what is taking place, here is a statement made by Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia, in an interview in Qn, the online publication of the Yale School of Management. He states,

“Patagonia has been working with Wal-Mart and 20 other large clothing companies to create a sustainability index. Within two years, you will be able to take your iPhone and zap the bar code on a pair of jeans to get a sustainability index that will let you choose the most sustainably made jeans. 

Right now, the customer is very confused. They see a shirt made out of bamboo fibers. That sounds sustainable. Well, in reality it’s rayon. It’s been around for a long time, and it uses very toxic chemicals. But nobody knows that. We’re going to answer all those questions and make it easy for the consumer to be able to pick and choose.”

This is exciting, and very transformative, for two reasons.

Information That Goes Far Beyond Ingredients and Nutrition Facts
This technology will soon be offering consumers information that goes much deeper than just listing the basic building blocks of the product. We will be able to tell them detailed information about a whole host of sustainability issues, radically redefining the information that consumers will have available to assess a product’s appropriateness and safety.

Information That is Live and Interactive
And not only will this information be of a completely new type, but the way we can access the information is going to radically change. Shopper’s smart phones will be able to scan the code on the package, hang tag, or store shelf and be able to make new kinds of decisions about the product’s value for themselves and their family.

Here is another article in this week’s Forbes online, where Mr. Chouinard talks about the partnership between Patagonia and Wal-Mart.

Patagonia has already started some of this with a feature on their site called the footprint chronicles, and Wal-Mart has a sustainability tab on their shopping site to help shoppers make more informed decisions.

Imagine being introduced to a person only through learning their DNA code. Think of all the things you wouldn’t know. The color of their eyes, the high school they graduated from, how tall they are, do they enjoy water skiing, or whether they can play the violin. That is where we are today with package labeling.

Soon, through this new technology, we will be introduced to the whole product, and its package, not just the ingredients. For marketers this will be a new opportunity to tell their story, for shoppers this will be a whole new way to listen.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
This entry was posted in Design Criticism, Design Practice, Environmental Packaging, Retail Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Wal-Mart and Patagonia, strange but true

  1. Joe says:

    And for those individuals without iPhone or other smart phones… what do they do?

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