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What's Working and What's Not in Walmart's Sustainability Efforts

This week, Walmart released its third sustainability report. Since Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and our team in Bentonville, Arkansas, works daily with Walmart, we want to share our thoughts on the environmental portion of the report. Because we don’t take money from Walmart -- or any of our corporate partners -- we can be candid about what’s working and what’s not.

This is our fifth year working with Walmart, and throughout that time we’ve been pushing the company hard to take aggressive goals and to be transparent about its results -- clearly disclosing progress and the data to back it up. With this report, it is evident that the message is starting to sink in.

The report gives a complete accounting of all of the sustainability goals to which Walmart has committed, with a detailed progress update for each. The sheer number and scope of the goals is notable, as is the actual progress that the company has made on most of them. To be honest, I find it even more impressive that Walmart is also candid about where they are falling short of a goal. Most companies I know don’t want to talk about what’s not working. But taking risks and setting high goals is what we need more of -- it’s the only way to achieve transformational environmental change. And in the context of progress on many other fronts, a struggle here or there seems just about right.

One great move forward since last year is Walmart’s new climate goal to reduce 20 million metric tons of carbon pollution from its products’ lifecycle and supply chain over the next five years. This fills the biggest hole in the scope of the sustainability program.

But there are some areas in the report, and in Walmart’s program, that still need improvement:

  • Avoiding waste. Walmart likes to talk about waste being redirected from landfills, but it should also focus on avoiding waste in the first place and reporting on that. Now that a good tracking system for waste is in place, we’d like to see a report of the total volume of waste produced annually, and the change in total volume from 2008 to 2009. We’d like to know whether Walmart’s waste reduction and diversion efforts are actually resulting in a net reduction from one year to the next.
  • Progress on packaging is lagging. The report gives data on the number of items represented in a packaging scorecard. That would have been fine a couple of years ago, but we should be able to see an actual baseline by now. It also mentions the goal of “packaging neutral,” which is never defined. For these goals to be meaningful, Walmart needs to define the metrics by which it will measure progress. While we’ve heard many anecdotes about packaging reductions at Walmart, for now we have no way of knowing if net progress is actually being made.
  • Reporting progress in context. The report on phosphates (an excellent attempt, by the way, to improve water quality in the Americas) gives progress on only a small portion of the goal and lacks a baseline (defined in last year’s report as the total mass of phosphates sold in 2009). As such, it is really meaningless. Knowing that 29 percent of detergent is phosphate free in Central America sounds good, but it is a relatively tiny percentage of the entire Americas, and who knows whether that represents a change driven by Walmart.

From what we see on the ground, Walmart is indeed working hard to “broaden and accelerate” their sustainability efforts, as CEO Mike Duke says. The folks working on this at Walmart have taken to proudly wearing buttons emblazoned with a “37” representing the number of Walmart sustainability goals (though there are actually 38 with the new climate goal added in). It’s a symbol of how intently they are focused on moving forward to meet those goals.

Elizabeth Sturcken is managing director of Environmental Defense Fund's Corporate Partnerships Program. This content is cross-posted on EDF's Innovation Exchange blog and is reprinted with permission.

Image courtesy of Walmart.

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