How She Leads: Andrea B. Thomas, Walmart

How She Leads

How She Leads: Andrea B. Thomas, Walmart

How She Leads is a regular feature on spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Andrea B. Thomas, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Walmart. Andrea oversees sustainability initiatives within the global organization as well as with external stakeholders to embed sustainability into Walmart business operations. Her background is in global merchandising, brand management, product development and co-manufacturing for a multi-billion dollar portfolio of private brands.

Walmart is the world's largest retailer with nearly 2.2 million employees. Given Walmart’s size, scope, and reach, it has an immeasurable effect and incomparable role in global supply chain for almost every type of product.

Among its many public commitments, Walmart has pledged to three overarching sustainability goals: use 100 percent renewable energy, operate at zero waste, and sell products that are socially and environmentally sustainable. In order to ensure achievement of the third goal, Walmart now requires its suppliers complete to complete a sustainability assessment, which will generate Sustainability Index Scorecards in every product category. In addition, the company has made a global commitment to sustainable agriculture and plans to train 1 million farmers – half of whom will be women – in sustainable farming techniques.

Maya Albanese: How did you move into your current role at Walmart?

Andrea Thomas: I started at Walmart five years ago and was working in private brands whenI received a phone call  about this position. The way we hire into Sustainability leadership at Walmart is by rotating someone in from the business side. That person doesn’t need to be an expert in sustainability necessarily, because we need team members who are familiar with the business. And we have our NGO partners and other external stakeholders who are experts on the sustainability side. Since I had been doing a lot on our operations side and had relevant experience, such as working on the initiative to remove 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from our supply chain operations, I was selected for the position.

MA: You have worked with several food companies. When and how did sustainability become your area of focus within this industry?

AT: There are several different layers to sustainability - efficiency is the one that helps us be more sustainable. In my time at Hershey, Frito Lay and Pizza Hut, we would build the profit and loss statement of new products and look at how we could make them more sustainable. We would have to think of food security and product security in different markets. But the scale of Walmart’s product assortment is just much larger than anywhere else I’ve worked.  We have food, apparel, electronics - the breadth is astounding. Everyone has to get involved.

MA: When did you become passionate about working for social and environmental responsibility?

AT: I grew up in Utah and spent a lot of time outdoors. Every January, there is an inversion where it gets really smoggy in the valley in Utah. One time, I was talking to my mom and she said that back in the 1960s, when everyone was burning coal, the sky used to always be like that or worse.  But now because of deliberate changes and choices we’ve made, the valley is not as smoggy as often. This made me realize that even small changes in behavior can make a big difference.

MA: How big is the sustainability team at Walmart? 

AT: Including me, the team is comprised of about 14 people. My team’s job is to facilitate the discussions between all the businesses and the different markets. Are we making the right commitments? Can we fill the commitments that we’ve made? And what makes it work so well here is the support of the senior leadership - the aspirations of the CEO Mike Duke.

Sustainability is really everybody’s job. No matter where they’re sitting in the organization, they have the opportunity to make an impact. We have people participating now in all the international markets as our Sustainable Value Networks have been globalized.

Photo of Andrea Thomas courtesy of Walmart

MA :     How does Walmart merge its brand positioning as the lowest price point with operating in a socially and environmentally responsible manner? 

AT: I don’t look at it as either/or. As you look at how our business can make an impact because of its breadth, size and scale, you must look at where the levers of the business overlap with environmental and social initiatives. For example, as part of our Direct Farm program in the developing markets, we have direct relationships with famers in order to get the quality we want and take cost out, because we’re cutting out the middlemen. The farmers say they’re getting more funds from this system and are able to hire more people and scale their businesses too. This is the nexus between social, environmental, and economic sustainability – they are all tied together.

Another interesting example is seen in our goal to get to 100 percent renewable energy. In some markets, there is no cost-effective way to achieve this goal, so we’re focusing on getting renewable energy to a comparable cost to brown energy. We’re going behind the scenes and figuring out how to change systems. For example, in Mexico, it is more realistic to invest in building new wind farms, so we went in and said we want to buy wind energy at a price that makes sense. Now we’re helping drive the cost down of renewable energy there.

MA: In terms of sustainability, how much truth is there to the “Walmart effect?” 

AT: The "Walmart Effect" often has a negative connotation, but we realize the responsibility that comes with our size and scale. We’re really careful not to make decisions without understanding the impact of those decisions. We have the ability through simply reading our sales reports every day to figure out what people want, and we’re doing things first and foremost that meet the needs of our customers.

MA: Could you talk about Walmart’s “15 questions,” which are a part of its Sustainability Index?

AT: We’re putting a lot of heads together to solve a very complicated thing – how do you measure and communicate the sustainability attributes of a product? If everyone tried to do this independently, it would not work. We create an industry-wide system to get people all together to talk about universal policies and systems.

MA: You are a board member of The Sustainability Consortium. Could you describe the importance of this organization, and how it relates to your role at Walmart?

AT: The Sustainability Consortium was always set up to be an independent organization that brings industry stakeholders together to collaborate and understand sustainability hotspots and levers within supply chains. It’s a big task to try and understand and influence the sustainability of every supply chain. Where we’ve really been able to make an impact in the last year is in what we call “hotspots.” If everyone can focus on these areas within each category, then we can really make an impact.  For example, while everyone knows that energy is a big expense, how many realize that facilitating a customer’s ability to wash their clothes in cold water can actually make the biggest environmental impact in the laundry category?

MA: What kinds of external partners do you work with to advance Walmart’s sustainability agenda?

AT: We have a working group that meets every month, which includes a lot of NGOs, such as Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Resources Institute and Conservation International.We also do a lot of stakeholder meetings with our suppliers’ environmental and social sustainability staff to line up our efforts and find out what other organizations have had success with.I also have personal relationships with the heads of sustainability at many major organizations. It’s a relatively transparent, close-knit group of people, because there are lots of ways we can work together on the same overall mission. We’re part of the Consumer Goods Forum and the World Economic Forum, so there are ways that we can tap into pretty much anyone when in the network.

MA: What are some of the bigger challenges that you face in achieving your goals?

AT: The product supply chain is a really big challenge.  It requires a lot of people looking down the supply chain. You start to see how many different things go into one relatively simple-looking product. Our biggest challenge and opportunity is making a difference in these complex supply chains. We measured our carbon footprint and 90 percent of our impact was within the actual supply chains. It’s also a hard challenge to make renewable energy cost-effective. We make public commitments like 100 percent renewable energy, because it’s a great way to rally our whole organization, and we learn from these commitments as we try to achieve them. If I knew every plan for every goal would be simple, then we’re not being aggressive enough.

MA: What is a current project that you’re especially proud of?

AT: The thing that I am most proud of, in general, is that we are sincerely looking at the ways we can take the big impact we have in the world and how we can use it to make the world a better place. For me, to be able to have this conversation across NGOs, governments - it really makes me feel that I do something with a lot of meaning.

MA: What advice would you give other professionals aspiring to hold positions similar to yours?

AT: Everybody can have a sustainability job. It generally fits into just about every job out there. It’s been exciting to see people come up with ideas on how they can change this organization for the better. I get emails all the time from people who say: “Why do we do this? How can we do this better?” So keep asking questions. It helps to push and ask questions - this helps everyone rethink things. In any company -- but especially in big companies -- it takes a lot to get people to think about what they’re doing to change it now. For example, in our stores, we have vending machines in our break rooms. One associate asked: Why do you keep the lights on in them all night? So we took the lights out of the vending machines, and saved more than $1 million a year in energy costs.

MA: Where do you hope to see the sustainability program at Walmart 10 years from now?

AT: The goal is not really to grow a big sustainability office, but rather to have sustainability move throughout the business. There is still going to be some growth in the industry for those looking for a job title with "sustainability" in it, but that’s going to be limiting. Instead tell yourself: I’m bringing it to the job I do every day.