Will Walmart Shoppers Buy Ethically-Branded Products?

Ethical buying is becoming big business, but few manufacturers have floated charitable business models that target consumers beyond the elites.

When Project 7 started up in 2008, it launched an ethical branding strategy familiar to Whole Foods shoppers everywhere: Simply chewing a piece of Project 7 gum, popping a Project 7 breath mint, or downing a bottle of Project 7 water would help fund nonprofits that "Feed the Hungry," "Save the Earth," and "Heal the Sick." Soon after it released its charity-minded line, Project 7 landed in that king of crunchy retail outlets. This fall, Project 7 made its way to more unexpected shelves: Walmart's.

As of September, customers shopping at 1,490 Walmart Supercenter stores across the country can pick up tubes of Project 7 "Feed the Hungry" mints (each tray purchase funds seven meals in the U.S.) and "Save the Earth" gum (buying one tube will plant a fruit tree). The move from health food grocery store to big-box emporium represents an effort to court lower-income consumers to ethically-branded stuff. "It's been a fascinating thing to watch," says Project 7 founder and CEO Tyler Merrick, 33. "The Walmart shopper is different from the Whole Foods shopper, but they want to feel like they’re giving back, too, even if they don't have as much disposable income to give to charity."

Ethical buying is becoming big business, but few manufacturers have floated charitable business models that target consumers beyond the progressive elite. "It crosses a lot of barriers in that sense," Merrick says. Newman's Own provides an initial model: A staple of mainstream groceries, Paul Newman's line of salad dressings, popcorns, and pasta sauces has raised over $300 million for progressive causes since 1982. But Newman's celebrity (his face graces every product) has been central to the brand's mainstream success. On Project 7 products, charity is front and center. "It's not on the back of the package," Merrick says. "These issues are our brand."

Before hitting Walmart, Project 7 placed its bottled water in 500 Caribou Coffee shops and its gums and mints in 25 airports across the United States. Walmart marks a huge expansion of the brand's accessibility. In each store, Project 7 products are visible at 10 to 14 check-out aisles, increasing the chances of catching a Walmart shopper's eye. Walmart bet on its customers taking notice. "If you’re a buyer for a retailer, you’re scared to make really big changes right now because you know that Snickers sells," Merrick says. "You just want to hold on to your market share. You don't want to take Snickers out and replace it with some new cool chocolate bar that gives back. It's a big risk for a buyer."

Part of the brand's wide reach relies on its focus on noncontroversial charitable giving. "None of our seven issues are polarizing in a political sense," Merrick says. "They're all pretty human." Still, "feeding the hungry probably pulls our heartstrings at the register more than anything," he says. The hippie-identified "Save the Earth" products were a riskier bet. But so far, Project 7's "Feed the Hungry" mints and "Save the Earth" gums are selling at similar rates in Walmart stores. "You have a large demographic of gum and mint shoppers in the tween and teen age group," Merrick explains. "Environmentalism and stewardship tends to appeal to that younger audience."

Whole Foods and Walmart shoppers may have similar tastes in charities, but their tastes in gums are a different story. Project 7 discontinued its Whole Foods line after finding difficulty satisfying the chain's all-natural requirements. "It just didn't make very good gum," Merrick says. "It lasted like five seconds." Now, Project 7's gum is produced much like any other mainstream gum company's (Merrick says a lean administrative staff allows Project 7 to fund its charitable giving). Walmart consumers tend to be less "concerned about the chemicals involved" in mainstream gum production than Whole Foods buyers, Merrick says. "People’s taste buds are just accustomed to that."
The appeal of Merrick's model is in this ordinariness—it tastes like regular gum, costs as much as regular gum, and sits right next to regular gum at the check-out aisle. The company's website claims that "doing good just got easy." Now, it's easier for a lot more consumers.

Photo courtesy Project 7

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