5 Things Every Consumer Should Know about Walmart’s Sustainability Index

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When Walmart tells its suppliers to be more eco-friendly, the impact is felt around the globe.

When Walmart tells its suppliers to be more eco-friendly, the impact is felt around the globe.

Walmart and Blue Planet Green Living wouldn’t seem an ideal match. And I have to admit that I at first said a resounding, “No, thanks!” to this post. I didn’t want to greenwash a company that is almost universally chastised for its poor treatment of the people who work for it. But, after reading about Walmart in Yvon Chouinard’s The Responsible Company, I’ve changed my views.

When a company as large as Walmart starts pushing its suppliers to be more green, that impact is huge—and it spreads. Positive or negative, what Walmart does matters. Maybe some positive press about the good things the company is doing can help persuade it—and all of us—to do more good things and more good things after that. That’s our hope for the coming year. ~Julia Wasson, Publisher

When Walmart initially announced its effort to infuse sustainable principles into every aspect of its business, some observers didn’t buy it. After all, its stated goals were a bit ambitious.

With their soon-to-be-implemented Sustainability Index, Walmart hopes to improve product quality, reduce energy consumption and waste, and educate consumers about sustainability. It plans to do all of this with the full cooperation of its network of thousands upon thousands of suppliers located around the world.

The information below highlights some of the components of the Sustainability Index and their likely impact. Suffice it to say, Walmart’s newest initiative has fewer skeptics today than it did when the program was first announced. Time will determine its effectiveness, as the market pressure created by a “green” rating system trickles down to both manufacturers and retail suppliers at every level.

Product Labels

As the name implies, the main goal of the Sustainability Index is to positively impact the sustainability movement and the environment. To that end, Walmart is surveying over 100,000 of its suppliers around the globe to learn about their current business practices. The survey questions seek to uncover information about suppliers’ energy and resource consumption, as well as their processes and community involvement.

The information gleaned from those surveys will eventually be compiled to create a label that will measure the extent to which the products’ design, manufacture, packaging, delivery, and life expectancy will impact the environment. The hope is that these labels will have a self-policing effect, whereby companies will strive to make their practices more sustainable in an effort to obtain a better product label at Walmart.

 Impact on Suppliers

While some observers initially had concern that suppliers would resist this process, the reaction has thus far been generally positive. Rather than requiring suppliers to fill out lots of paperwork and produce a great deal of supporting information, Walmart is only asking its suppliers to answer 15 questions. That approach, some say, gets the needed information without placing a heavy burden on suppliers. As a result, industry insiders seem optimistic that suppliers will be very cooperative in this effort, which might not be the case if Walmart were soliciting minute details about every aspect of a company’s operations.

Better Products

Although the Sustainability Index is often primarily described as a measure to reduce the retail industry’s impact on the environment, Walmart also hopes the program will generally enhance the quality of the products on its shelves. And those two objectives actually complement each other very well. After all, if products are better, more reliable, and last longer, then they won’t be thrown in the trash to languish in landfills.

The initial response from consumers is positive, if not hopeful. Walmart’s statements and actions with regard to the Sustainability Index suggest that this is not a gimmick intended to garner good press. Instead, the company appears legitimately interested in transforming the industry by promoting responsible business practices that are environmentally sensitive and delivering better products to a public whose demand for quality continues to increase.

Impact on Consumers

If the Sustainability Index works as planned, consumers will benefit because the quality of products will improve. And if a product’s life expectancy is expanded, the positive effect will extend to consumers’ wallets, as they won’t have to replace items as often. In addition, environmentally conscious consumers will be able to make informed choices about the products they purchase thanks to Walmart’s new labeling system.

In addition, in a world where companies go to great lengths to create the appearance that their products are environmentally friendly to attract customers, these labels will provide a much-needed control in what many consider an unscrupulous marketing environment. A company’s hollow claims that its products are “eco-friendly” or “green” will no longer be able to mislead customers, who will have some objective measurement of how a product will impact the environment.

Inspiration for Other Companies

Walmart has a notorious reputation as an aggressive competitor in the retail industry, but it seems to be willing to “share the wealth” for the greater good with this initiative. The Sustainability Index is not proprietary to Walmart, and the company welcomes others to use it. If any skeptics had concerns that Walmart’s intentions weren’t sincere when it unveiled the Sustainability Index, perhaps the decision to make it available to its competitors will change their minds.

Not only does Walmart’s Sustainability Index aim to transform how it and its network of suppliers do business, the retail giant hopes that the program will fundamentally change how all companies operate. Those are ambitious goals, indeed, and their impact on small businesses of every type will be interesting to watch take effect.

Brent Hardy

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Brent Hardy is Vice President of www.extraspace.com, responsible for all corporate construction & facilities management. He writes about corporate sustainable practices at blog.extraspace.com/category/sustainability/