It's not easy being green. 

Just ask New York's popular online grocer FreshDirect. It's been under continuous attack from local environmental groups about its planned move to the Bronx from Long Island City, which has angered grassroots and environmental activists in the borough. It's planning to operate from a 500,000 square foot, waterfront facility by 2016.

The online grocer was on the receiving end of a lot of flack this weekend from environmentalists, at a softball game attended by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and at the People's Climate March, where the group, South Bronx Unite, loudly protested the grocer's move.

Here's one of the banners from Sunday's march from a Twitter post:

At issue is FreshDirect's plan to bring its fleet of diesel delivery trucks to an area that has one of the highest asthma rates nationally. South Bronx Unite has also protested the more than $100 million in subsidies and tax rebates that FreshDirect has gotten to relocate in the borough, without firm commitments to hire locally

As far as small companies go, FreshDirect doesn't seem to be a slacker for its environmental efforts. The company, which has close to 2,000 employees and which delivers in New York, Long Island, and Connecticut, has an entire page on its Website devoted to its efforts to operate sustainably. Among its actions: The company allows consumers to schedule eco-friendly delivery times, which ensures trucks are full when deliveries are made; it uses delivery boxes made of recycled materials and manufactured by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative; It's switching to an all-electric fleet of vehicles over the next five years. And just as important, it works with 60 local farms to source its products.  

Additionally, a FreshDirect spokeswoman said it will be operating from a facility in the Bronx zoned for industrial use, and its neighboring companies are also delivery transportation companies. To make deliveries, the company says it will make immediate use of the nearby Bruckner Expressway, bypassing residential neighborhoods. And FreshDirect has partnered with a number of local community groups for outreach.

In a statement, FreshDirect said:

FreshDirect cares both about the community and the environment. We are excited for our move to the Bronx and are pleased to have the support of many elected, community and civic leaders. We continue to identify steps that we can take to lessen any impact on the environment--from food sourcing to packaging to our fleet.

But that doesn't seem to be enough for some local residents, which got me wondering, when are green efforts sincere, and why are some perceived as greenwashing? Also, if a company wants to appease upset neighbors what's a good strategy?

Andrew Winston, author of The Big Pivot, and a consultant who works with companies to help them become more sustainable, says: "What's much more frequent is a benign kind of overstatement where companies brag about something green that may be true, but [is] mostly irrelevant to their real impacts." 

As far as I can tell, FreshDirect's green message on its Website and its community outreach isn't really connecting with at least one part of the local community where it plans to set up shop. And it needs to do that to diffuse an "Us-versus-them" adversarial relationship.

Two of the primary concerns the local community has is the health impact of all those diesel trucks that will soon be moving in. Creating jobs in the borough's poorer neighborhoods is another critical part of the complaint. FreshDirect says it does have plans to hire locally for the 1,000 new jobs it will create, while 21 percent of its workforce currently resides in the Bronx. 

Jacquelyn Ottman, a green marketing consultant and author of New Rules of Green Marketing, says FreshDirect--or any company similarly facing neighborhood pushback--needs to engage more with the community with town hall meetings, where it invites residents to voice their concerns. FreshDirect should also consider launching an education campaign, about things like its timetable to switch to new, less pollution-causing trucks. It could also use its trucks as billboards to inform consumers about its environmental efforts. 

"Fresh Direct should make an effort to hear as many people as they can," Ottman says. "The moment people realize they are getting jobs out of the deal, they will feel a lot better. Right now, they are feeling abused and taken advantage of."

Published on: Sep 22, 2014