How She Leads: Andrea B. Thomas, Walmart

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz.com spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Andrea B. Thomas, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Walmart. Andrea oversees sustainability initiatives within the global organization as well as with external stakeholders to embed sustainability into Walmart business operations. Her background is in global merchandising, brand management, product development and co-manufacturing for a multi-billion dollar portfolio of private brands.

Walmart is the world's largest retailer with nearly 2.2 million employees. Given Walmart’s size, scope, and reach, it has an immeasurable effect and incomparable role in global supply chain for almost every type of product.

Among its many public commitments, Walmart has pledged to three overarching sustainability goals: use 100 percent renewable energy, operate at zero waste, and sell products that are socially and environmentally sustainable. In order to ensure achievement of the third goal, Walmart now requires its suppliers complete to complete a sustainability assessment, which will generate Sustainability Index Scorecards in every product category. In addition, the company has made a global commitment to sustainable agriculture and plans to train 1 million farmers – half of whom will be women – in sustainable farming techniques.

Maya Albanese: How did you move into your current role at Walmart?

Andrea Thomas: I started at Walmart five years ago and was working in private brands whenI received a phone call  about this position. The way we hire into Sustainability leadership at Walmart is by rotating someone in from the business side. That person doesn’t need to be an expert in sustainability necessarily, because we need team members who are familiar with the business. And we have our NGO partners and other external stakeholders who are experts on the sustainability side. Since I had been doing a lot on our operations side and had relevant experience, such as working on the initiative to remove 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from our supply chain operations, I was selected for the position.

MA: You have worked with several food companies. When and how did sustainability become your area of focus within this industry?

AT: There are several different layers to sustainability - efficiency is the one that helps us be more sustainable. In my time at Hershey, Frito Lay and Pizza Hut, we would build the profit and loss statement of new products and look at how we could make them more sustainable. We would have to think of food security and product security in different markets. But the scale of Walmart’s product assortment is just much larger than anywhere else I’ve worked.  We have food, apparel, electronics - the breadth is astounding. Everyone has to get involved.

MA: When did you become passionate about working for social and environmental responsibility?

AT: I grew up in Utah and spent a lot of time outdoors. Every January, there is an inversion where it gets really smoggy in the valley in Utah. One time, I was talking to my mom and she said that back in the 1960s, when everyone was burning coal, the sky used to always be like that or worse.  But now because of deliberate changes and choices we’ve made, the valley is not as smoggy as often. This made me realize that even small changes in behavior can make a big difference.

MA: How big is the sustainability team at Walmart? 

AT: Including me, the team is comprised of about 14 people. My team’s job is to facilitate the discussions between all the businesses and the different markets. Are we making the right commitments? Can we fill the commitments that we’ve made? And what makes it work so well here is the support of the senior leadership - the aspirations of the CEO Mike Duke.

Sustainability is really everybody’s job. No matter where they’re sitting in the organization, they have the opportunity to make an impact. We have people participating now in all the international markets as our Sustainable Value Networks have been globalized.

Photo of Andrea Thomas courtesy of Walmart

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