Ron Jarvis on Home Depot's blueprint for eco-leadership

The GreenBiz Interview

Ron Jarvis on Home Depot's blueprint for eco-leadership

ShutterstockHome Depot/ Sergey Yechikov

As the world's largest home improvement retailer, The Home Depot is a haven for homeowners, gardeners and do-it-yourself construction geeks. That's why the store, which reaped $8 billion in earnings in 2016, has worked since 2007 through its Eco Options program to identify products that protect the safety of the indoor environments where their products are used.

In its 2017 sustainability report, released last week, Home Depot strengthened its chemicals policy across five product categories: paint; carpet; vinyl; laminate flooring; and insulation. The new strategy includes commitments to increase the ingredient transparency of an assortment of products, and offering third-party certification of chemical ingredients.

It's also working with suppliers to improve chemicals in categories to increase indoor air quality  phasing out chemicals of concern such as triclosan, formaldehyde, lead and heavy metals in paints and building products  and expanding Eco Options, by partnering with the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (G3C), the Healthy Building Network and Cradle to Cradle, to preserve the great indoors.

As for the outdoors, purchasing rules are reinforced up to protect the Amazon and Congo river basins from deforestation. Home Depot is increasing its protection of High Conservation Value Forests and tropical forest landscapes by purchasing only imported wood that is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.

Managing all of this would be a hard sell if not for the blueprints laid out by Home Depot's sustainability team. I spoke with Ron Jarvis, Home Depot's vice president of sustainability and environmental innovation, about laying a careful foundation for the future of healthy customers and natural resources.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Anya Khalamayzer: How does Home Depot's updated chemicals management program fit within your broader sustainability goals?

Ron Jarvis: Not being a retailer that has a lot of consumables and products that go "in me, on me," we know that our biggest environmental impact for the consumer is indoor air quality. We wanted to make sure that we went after those categories first, which for us would be paint, carpet, flooring and insulation.

It's the manufacturing of those products and the use and disposal of those products. We do look at product categories and spend a lot of time working with our merchants, and working with suppliers so the product that we sell will have less of an impact on the environment than standard products.

What we've done in parallel to our Eco-Options program is to also look at product categories like paint and carpet, for two instances, and work on reducing the types of chemicals that are in those products. They're don't automatically become certified green products, but we have reduced their impact on the environment.  

Khalamayzer: How will you incentivize your suppliers to turn to better chemicals management?

Jarvis: We have some suppliers that we have dealt with for 30-plus years, and they are true partners. For most of these changes, we sit down and talk to them, and we say, "This is someplace that we would like to take this product category. How can you help us get there?"

We do not try to go out and source new suppliers to do that for us. We would much rather work with the partners that we have, and change the products that we're purchasing. And sometimes it takes weeks; sometimes it takes years. The incentive is that we're doing the right thing. It's important, I think, both for the manufacturer and the retailer to know that they're building a stronger partnership by improving the products.

Khalamayzer: What was the incentive that deepened your commitment to chemicals management; consumer demand, fear of not being competitive in the marketplace or other factors?

Jarvis: We have a value will that our founders created when they started the company, and part of that is doing the right thing. I've been a product merchant for 30 years, and I know that if given the right opportunity, suppliers will work with you to improve their products. And so our incentive is to do the right thing for today's generation, and do it for tomorrow's generation.

In almost all cases, we can do this without adding an increased burden on the cost of the product to consumers. Once you do it, then I think you're a better company, and you become less of a target. When you sit down to talk with NGOs or any activist groups, you become a partner at the table instead of a catalyst, because in a lot of cases, you know as much or more than they do, and you've been further down the road that they want to get down. So it helps in a lot of different negotiations.

Khalamayzer: How do you work with the rest of the other teams in the company to talk about the importance of sustainability? What kind of partnerships have to happen with teams and relationships in order to align?

Jarvis: I think we have an advantage because I've been a merchant and I've been a merchandising vice president, so I have sat in the merchants' and buyers' chairs. And I've bought, or been a manager over, almost every category in the company at one point or other. So we understand the business. We know the suppliers. We have had this (sustainability) position since 2000 in the company, so we now have 17 years under our belt and won the President's Award for Sustainability in 1996 from President Bill Clinton.

So we have gotten past the newness and talk about certification labels and green products, to now we are focused on all products and all departments and adding, removing, making products better.

Khalamayzer: Many companies are introducing more serious chemical supply chain management programs, and pushing for legislation. Why do you think that's happening?

Jarvis: So much of it has to do with social media and the ability to get your story out there. It does two things: it pre-educates the consumer, and then also anyone that's trying to do a rack-and-stack among manufacturers, producers, retailers, once they find that information, they can say, "Well, here's what I didn't realize that Home Depot was doing in its chemical, but now I know. So I can either give them credit, or I can come after them for not doing more."

We've been working for probably 10 years on getting more transparency in for the products, even to the point to where we've worked with suppliers to say, "Let's come up with a type of nutritional label that you can scan it or look at it online and find out, where's the product come from, how much energy does it use, how much water does it use, how far is it shipped, what's the chemicals inside?"

So consumers, if they want to know, they can find a place to do that. I think people are just trying to get ahead of that, to say, "Let's not leave information up for the unknown."

Khalamayzer: Can you tell me about your sustainable forestry initiative?

Jarvis: In 1994, we were the first retailer to carry FSC-certified wood, at that time the only certified wood products. The reason that we won President Clinton's award for sustainability was for our involvement in sales of certified wood.  

We track where our products come from, so we know what percentage of our products come from North America vs. South America. We look at the species, and then we spend time talking to countries. I spent a week and a half at a United Nations meeting in Rome a few years ago, where every country was discussing the issues around their forests.

When a supplier comes to us and offers a wood product, if it is from a country that might be of concern, then we'll know to ask the right questions. As we looked and monitored wood coming in and around the Amazon Basin and the Congo Basin, we know the suppliers that are shipping out of there, and that everything is certified and legal under the Lacey Act (a U.S. conservation law prohibiting trade in wildlife and plants that have been illegally possessed or sold).

FSC certification tracks the wood back to the forest that it was harvested in. We just thought it was time to make the policy: Every year I pull up the Google maps of the Amazon and the Congo Basin, and we look at what's happening to the forest. Is it growing? Is it shrinking?

And the difference between a forest in Canada and a forest in the Amazon is in most cases, when they cut the forest in the Amazon, they don't plant it back with tropical hardwoods. When the cut a forest in Canada, they plant it back with the indigenous trees and the native trees that were there, so the forest grows back the way it should.

Khalamayzer: How do you assess the results of your sustainable forestry program?

Jarvis: Approximately 95 percent of our wood comes from North America. And the North American forests, in my mind, are probably some of the most sustainable forests in the world. The other 5 percent is where we spend our time and efforts to make sure that the areas of the world that that wood's coming from is also sustainable and well managed.

Khalamayzer: How does this impact Home Depot's business?

Jarvis: There's probably not a large business case as far as more sales, more profitability, even image. The basins are the lungs of the earth, and we want to do everything we can to protect them. I don't think customers will buy more products from Home Depot because of this policy, or the fact that their products would not be coming from the Amazon or Congo. But we think it's the right thing to do, and it's the right time to do it.

Khalamayzer: Do you think that this will affect other companies, either [upstream] in the supply chain or within the industry?

Jarvis:  We would hope that other companies would look at the Amazon Basin and the Congo Basin and make sure that they're not purchasing wood out of there unless it is either somehow validated or certified as well. We also study the deforestation and afforestation on an annual basis, and over the last 15 years, the deforestation rate on an annual basis has dropped dramatically.

We just want to make sure that that's on the top of the mind awareness, not only for us and our manufacturers, but also for consumers and other retailers.

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