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3 takeaways on Walmart's 2025 sustainability aims

For a decade, EDF has worked with the retail colossus. Here's the take on the latest targets from the NGO's director of corporate partnerships.

Amidst the noise in the run-up to the election, later today Walmart CEO Doug McMillon will map out the company's sustainability goals for 2025. As a keynote speaker at this year’s Net Impact Conference, he'll be delivering a fairly lengthy, aspirational list; here are a few highlights of what the world’s largest retailer has planned:

  • 50 percent renewable energy
  • 18 percent absolute emissions reduction Scopes 1+2
  • 1 Gigaton emissions reduction Scope 3
  • Zero waste to landfill by 2025 in key markets
  • Zero net deforestation in key commodities
  • 100 percent recyclable packaging in private brands

These are my initial big takeaways as a director of the NGO who has worked with Walmart closely on its sustainability journey over the last 10 years.

(By the way, EDF takes no money from our corporate partners — we are funded solely through grants, donations and membership. We like to say we get paid in environmental results.)

1. Walmart can’t accomplish such ambitious goals alone —  which is good

Getting to 50 percent renewables, reducing absolute emissions from their stores and trucks, and removing a gigaton of GHG emissions from their supply chain are exactly the kinds of leadership goals Walmart should be putting forth to help meet the challenge of climate change.

But actually delivering on these goals will be no joke. Luckily, our 25 years of working with companies have consistently revealed two important guideposts:

  1. Specific, ambitious goals are vital for driving innovation and progress
  2. Achieving real, science-based results truly takes a village of collaborators

To give just one example, three years ago Walmart set a policy to eliminate eight of the most prevalent and concerning chemicals in their home and personal care products. With no clear path forward, Walmart engaged thousands of suppliers, requiring them to submit full product formulations to a 3rd-party database, then replace those eight ingredients with safer substitutes.

The result? A 95 percent reduction of chemicals of concern, adding up to 23 million pounds.  This affects 90,000 products that are sold everywhere, not just on the shelves at Walmart. At the same time, this work also helped to set the stage for this year’s passage of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, the first piece of environmental legislation in a generation that is aimed at fixing our broken system of regulating toxic chemicals.

By aiming big and bringing on strategic partners, Walmart was able to go further, faster than it had ever dreamed. The same holds true now.

By aiming big and bringing on strategic partners, Walmart was able to go further, faster than they’d ever dreamed. The same holds true now.

2. Corporate sustainability is officially a trend

Walmart’s announcement is just the latest in a string of other companies — PepsiCoKelloggGeneral Mills — who have also put forth ambitious sustainability goals. What this tells us is that companies are proving, over and over again, that this is not about “doing the right thing,” it’s about doing what creates business value and environmental progress.

As if to prove this point, last month Doug McMillon talked publicly about how sustainability is a core part of its business strategy during an investor call. In this first-time-event-for-a-Walmart-CEO, he emphasized to Wall Street that one of the four ways that Walmart will win in the 21st century is to lead on sustainability by being "the most trusted retailer" and called out progress on making products such as shampoo and lotion safer, healthier and better for the planet, increasing renewables and reducing waste

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that while Walmart is committing to healthy products in its 2025 goals, we are disappointed to not see further goals on the path to becoming a "toxic free" store.)

Sustainability is finally being seen for what it is: a smart business strategy. In a world of decreasing resources and consumers that want better products there’s no other path forward in the long term.  And looking around at what’s happening, the long term is here!

3. The election is finally (almost) over — now let’s get back to work

This election has shown that people want change.  It’s been scary and unsettling but it’s a challenge we can’t shrink from. We have healing to do as a country, which can only begin if we engage with each other. Climate change and its effects are going to get worse before they get better.  Just look at this summer’s fires in California, the hurricane in Haiti, the floods in Louisiana and North Carolina.

I know there’s another path forward.

Having worked with companies over the last 25 years doing what many thought was impossible, I have hope.

Having worked with companies over the last 25 years doing what many thought was impossible, I have hope.  These corporate leaders aren’t waiting for regulation to force them to act, but choosing to consciously, aggressively become more sustainable. And I’m inspired by companies doing the hard work to think beyond their corporate walls and take ownership for the impact of the products they make and sell in the world.

The scary truth is, the aspirational goals that we need for our planet and for long-term business viability mean that business won’t know exactly how to achieve them.  It will force an openness to innovation and requires bring suppliers and customers in as partners to achieve those goals.

So congratulations, Walmart, on setting aggressive yet achievable goals for 2025 — and doing what the science tells us needs to get done for a stable and healthy planet. You have a proven track record of meeting and exceeding big sustainability goals. We expect the same here.

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