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Is Walmart selling unsustainable products from 'sustainability leaders'?

A few days ago, I read Joel Makower’s report on Walmart’s Sustainability Leaders program. After reviewing the story I went online to check out the “sustainability leaders” in a category I know well, household products, from my days leading Seventh Generation.

The first product featured by Walmart is: Angel Soft Toilet Paper, 12 Jumbo Rolls, Bath Tissue. I clicked through to read the product details, of which there are almost none. The product has zero pre-consumer recycled fiber, zero post-consumer fiber, zero Forest Stewardship Council-certified fiber and zero alternative fibers. Moreover, the product details do not even disclose how the fiber is bleached.

The product does claim that it is a jumbo roll with 286 sheets per roll. Jumbo rolls are generally more sustainable because they reduce the amount of packaging used, but unfortunately in Angel Soft's case the claim is baseless because a jumbo roll should have at least 400 to 500 sheets, from my perspective. Please remember, I was the guy promoting 100 percent post-consumer recycled and unbleached bath tissue in 1989 in the Seventh Generation mail order catalog.

Joel notes that the Sustainability Leaders program is far from perfect and lists the reasons why. Lack of transparency about how they derived the sustainability scores and explanatory information are hard to find. Also, the sustainability criteria used is not necessarily comprehensive.

On the flip side, I concur with Joel that it’s encouraging that Walmart, the great behemoth of 21st century retailing, is attempting to once again implement a new approach to sustainability. And I understand that the supposed accolade of “Sustainability Leader” goes primarily to the company, Georgia Pacific, and not the product.

But the biggest flaw in this logic is one that trumps all good of the Sustainability Leaders program: it confuses the customer. In essence, Walmart is saying, “Hey, Walmart shopper, here’s a totally unsustainable product from one of our supposed Sustainability Leaders.”

Confusing consumers

If customers even pay attention to Walmart’s Sustainability Leaders listings and make purchases based on the ranking of the company — and let’s assume for the sake of argument that they do in this case — those consumers are deluded into thinking they are doing something positive for our planet, when in fact they are probably not. As noted above, just in the example of toilet paper, Georgia Pacific’s product is contributing to our depleting forests and polluting our environment with chemicals.

But, there’s more to just sustainability than the makeup of the product. It might come as a surprise that at least when it comes to household products, the most damage done to the environment is not necessarily the energy intensity of the supply chains of the company, or the sustainability of the packaging or even the percent of recycled content. It's actually in the way the product is used by the customer. For example, in the case of toilet paper, the greatest impact actually comes from when we flush the toilet after using the paper.

So, what’s really a sustainable product then?

What really can be called sustainable is when the company looks holistically at the entire lifecycle of a product, including how the consumer uses the product. For example, Unilever, now considered a true sustainability leader by me and many others, is developing new showerheads and a waterless shampoo to reduce the impact that taking a shower has on water scarcity and climate change. Unilever estimates that 80 percent of their shampoos' impact occurs while the consumer is showering, particularly the greenhouse gas emissions related to heating the water.

Perhaps Georgia Pacific, to live up to their Sustainability Leader title given by Walmart, can take a cue from Unilever, use their research and development resources and innovate a line of toilet paper that’s actually sustainable — from the materials used all the way down the value chain to the consumer’s use of water.

Otherwise, I have to say, this is a serious case of greenwashing on Walmart’s part.

Before we get some workable innovations in sustainable products, we need to be clear on what exactly we mean by sustainable — and looking to consumer use is the first place to start.

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