Walmart seeks to clear toxics from its shelves

The largest retailer in the world has set its sights on chemicals, with plans to increase transparency on chemical use while finding safer alternatives.

Walmart announced the new chemical policy at its Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting today, where it also laid out new goals centered on sustainable beef and crop fertilizers, and detailed progress around its Sustainability Index.

Walmart said it is targeting "about 10" specific chemicals and will work with suppliers to increase transparency about the chemicals and risks associated with them on packaging and online.

Simultaneously, the retailer will team with its private-label suppliers and other partners to reformulate personal care items, cleaners and other products to meet the U.S. EPA's Design for the Environment standards. The goal being to reduce harmful chemicals with safer, benign alternatives.

The company has not yet named which chemicals are being focused on, nor set a timeline for when they will be announced.

While Walmart’s product initiatives have been self-guided, its chemical work will need to also go along with the demands of California’s new Safer Consumer Product Regulations, which go into effect in October and will target small groups of chemical-product combinations at a time.

Chemicals are just one aspect of products that Walmart has been investigating through its Sustainability Index, a scorecard for products that Walmart buyers use when evaluating goods.

Since the launch of the Sustainability Index, more than 1,000 suppliers covering 300 product categories have filled it out, said Mike Duke, Walmart President and CEO. The company expects that will grow to 5,000 suppliers and 300 product categories by the end of the year, he said.

Among those rated products include plenty of food items, and food scores have increased 12 percent since the launch of the index, with coffee scores raising the most, by 32 percent.

One way Walmart and its suppliers are working to lower the impact of the food chain is through fertilizer. Tim Robinson, director of Walmart's baking team, said he was looped into the company's work on fertilizer about 15 months ago.

"I've made small wins in packaging and I've optimized freight lengths," he said, a far cry from trying to link his flour purchasing with massively reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What followed was a number of initiatives, syncing up with industry groups, the Environmental Defense Fund, National Corn Growers Association and a buyer coalition to develop and spread best practices on fertilizer use, all of which fed into the Sustainability Index.

Through that work, Walmart projects that its suppliers will reduce how much fertilizer they use by about 30 percent, on 14 million acres of farmland, by 2020, which will also reduce GHG emissions by 17 million metric tons.

Along the same lines as sourcing crops, beef was highlighted as a major target of the index and Walmart's collaborative work. The retailer is developing a pilot program that will include environmental criteria focused on the production of beef, with plans to have 50 percent of the beef on Walmart's shelves sourced from that criteria by 2023.

A common thread that runs across nearly all items in Walmart's over-4,000 stores in the U.S. is packaging. With that in mind, the company is pushing to soon have all products that include plastic packaging to be rated by the Sustainability Index, with an expectation to increased recycled content in packaging by 3 billion pounds over the next seven years.

Coming in with overall scores higher than food, the company's general merchandise product scores have increased 20 percent since the index launched.

Among the company with strong environmental work behind their goods is Hanes, which over the last five years reduce carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent, increased renewable energy use 25 percent, and reduced water use 33 percent. It also puts 60 million recycled plastic bottles a year into its products, such as fleeces and ComfortBlend T-shirts.

"There are many, many more stories," Duke said, "I believe we have reached this acceleration point where we are ready to turn it up. It's time to really accelerate, to really broaden."