Quality Expert Says Walmart's Sustainability Journey is the Real Deal

[Editor's note: See further coverage by Greener World Media Executive Editor Joel Makower, Senior Writer Marc Gunther, GreenerComputing.com Executive Editor Preston Gralla and our news staff.]

There is a new Walmart emerging.

From the moment when I stepped into the renovated Home Office reception area, its cork floors, bamboo and recycled countertops and energy efficient lighting signaled the start of the next phase of Walmart's sustainability journey. With any journey, there are times we turn back to what is known and comfortable. But Walmart is not going back. Now at the end of the beginning of this effort, Walmart is asking suppliers to join the journey and share along the way.

At the company's Milestone Meeting today in Bentonville, Ark., Walmart unveiled its Sustainability Index: a set of 15 questions broken up into four focus areas of energy and climate, material efficiency, nature and resources, and people and community.

There was the expectation that the meeting would be a time to take a deep dive into the index. Instead, it flowed like a good story. Most of the meeting was not spent on the details of the index, but on the stories and examples of sustainability in practice by Walmart and for Walmart. These stories highlighted several important themes.

First, the index is about increasing transparency in the supply chain. Customers are increasingly interested in knowing more about the products that they buy, and information for the shopper is abundant. The future is almost here. Soon shoppers will be able to scan a product using a cell phone and be able to "meet"  the manufacturer and learn more about the product's social and environmental performance.

Secondly, quality and sustainability are strongly linked. If you have a poor quality product, then you are not sustainable. There are hidden costs in poor quality and unsustainable products. If you make it, ship it, sell it and return it, there are significant environmental impacts. Additionally, CEO Mike Duke emphasized that every time he sees a product in the return center, he sees a disappointed customer.

For Walmart, it has always been about the customer. This is no different. Walmart continues to deepen its understanding of the customer. At the same time, the customer's needs have changed. Today's customer has more detailed, accessible and meaningful information to draw from when considering purchases. Walmart understands that its future customers are virtually certain to care about sustainability more than current generations do. The company adheres to its core values: satisfying customer needs and wants, and customers trust Walmart to do the right thing.

Throughout the meeting, Walmart executives cited examples to show that its philosophy is just smart business. There were case stories of low-flow toilets and low-carbon, free-range eggs that illustrated there are cost savings to be had, market opportunities to capture, and a chance to speak to the people (and youth) who deeply care about sustainability. The company also had many examples of how it is responding to those concerns. For example, Sam's Club now has a Home and Business Efficiency section.

You may be asking, "Is Walmart really serious about this?" Indeed it is. But, a word of caution, if you are a Walmart supplier, and you don't take this seriously, Walmart Private Label will. The Private Label team presented through the video, "The Life of Sour Cream," that by looking at sustainability from a whole systems perspective, you get a better product, at a lower cost, with significantly less impact on the planet.

I was once one of the doubters. Not any more.

Walmart's sustainability journey has been an interesting one to watch. Now, as it begins to more deeply address the products it sells, Walmart is asking the suppliers to accompany the firm in taking the next step.

Walmart's "Save Money Live Better" motto now equates to not only living better for this generation, but living better for future generations.

Catherine Greener is CEO and founder of Greener Solutions Inc. She also is cofounder of Cleargreen Advisors.

Image courtesy of Walmart.