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Walmart: Joining Project Gigaton doesn't have to be a heavy lift

Scale will come in the form of many small commitments, at least to start.

More than 400 of Walmart's supply chain partners have embraced the nine-month-old Project Gigaton, the mammoth retailer's ambitious program to help suppliers reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tons by 2030.

That's an admirable number, considering that about 250 suppliers were initially targeted at the launch in April. But as the initiative nears its first anniversary in April, Walmart and one of its key NGO partners, World Wildlife Fund, are doubling down on making the program more "accessible" — especially to smaller organizations that haven't yet embraced sustainable business practices.

"I think we've learned how do meet them where they are, how do think of this as a continuous journey and how do we motivate and recognize their progress wherever they are in that journey," said Laura Phillips, senior vice president for global sustainability with Walmart, during mainstage conversation at GreenBiz 18.

You can expect a deeper progress report in April, but if Project Gigaton is successful, the impact will be the equivalent of taking 211 million passenger vehicles off U.S. roads for one year, according to the company's calculations. That's on top of Walmart's own mission to cut Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 18 percent in absolute terms by 2025.

For perspective, the indirect Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions represented by Walmart's agricultural partners, manufacturers, logistics experts and other suppliers represent almost 90 percent of the retailer's entire carbon footprint. Walmart has been engaging many of these allies for more than a decade in its quest to reduce its carbon footprint. Project Gigaton offers "recognition" opportunities to suppliers that participate, as well as all resources to help other starts doing "good work."  

We are seeing that brands that invest in this that talk about this are the ones that experience high growth. That's how we can sustain this.
Walmart's long-term aspiration is to power its operations entirely by renewable energy; it's around 26 percent, according to Phillips. (That's the same number revealed in its 2015 Global Responsibility report.) How's it doing on zero waste? It depends on the country, but on a global basis the average retailer is diverting about 77 percent of what it produces, she said. (The U.S. number is higher, around 82 percent.) 

Phillips addressed Project Gigaton's progress alongside Sheila Bonini, senior vice president of private sector engagement with WWF. During the past nine months, Walmart has seen some supply chain partners accelerate the pace of leading-edge programs they already had in place, the two reported. Some have even gone so far as to set science-based targets, emulating Walmart's own. But the retailer needs to win over far more suppliers, and the "big middle" isn't exactly sure how to get started. That's a worry.

"For us to achieve these goals, we need more involvement," Phillips said.

To be clear, Project Gigaton isn't mandatory. At least right now. To make its case, Walmart is underscoring the business benefits suppliers can realize in the form of cost reductions, efficiency and customer loyalty, especially among the millennial set.

"We are seeing that brands that invest in this, that talk about this are the ones that experience high growth. That's how we can sustain this," Phillips said. 

Bonini's advice to suppliers that feel overwhelmed: Start in small ways that can make a meaningful impact on your business, whether that's addressing the type and amount of packaging used for products, stepping up energy efficiency measures, reducing waste, adopting more sustainable agricultural practices or fighting deforestation.

That's something these organizations can learn from their own customers and employees, not Walmart or its NGO allies.

"Figure out where is the biggest impact and start there," Bonini said. "You don't have to do everything. The program doesn't require you to do specific things. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach."

Listen to an exclusive podcast interview about Project Gigaton.

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