Walmart Unveils Phase One of Sustainability Index

[Editor's note: See further coverage by Greener World Media Executive Editor Joel Makower, Senior Writer Marc Gunther, GreenerComputing.com Executive Editor Preston Gralla and sustainability consultant Catherine Greener.]

The worst-kept secret in the green business world is now out in the open: Walmart today unveiled its Sustainablity Product Index, a guide for rating the sustainability of products.

At an event in Bentonville, Walmart executives detailed the project, although the news had been making the rounds for several days, beginning with GreenBiz.com senior Writer Marc Gunther's advance look at the index earlier this week.

The project will be rolled out in three phases, starting with a survey of all of Walmart's suppliers around the globe. The survey consists of 15 questions in four categories: energy and climate, material efficiency, natural resources and people and community. Suppliers will be asked to fill out the questionnaire by October 1. (The full survey is available for download from GreenBiz.com.)

The second phase of the project involves the development of a Sustainability Index Consortium, a coalition of universities and suppliers, retailers, NGOs and government entities working together to build a global product-lifecycle database, measuring the impact and resource use of products from raw materials through to end-of-life. Walmart said it intends to make the database open to the world rather than use it as proprietary information, although the company has yet to choose a partner help develop of the database.

Finally, once all the lifecycle data has been compiled and analyzed, Walmart and its partners will develop a customer-facing rating system to enable shoppers to make choices based on the environmental impact of their purchases.

GreenBiz.com Executive Editor Joel Makower covered the launch of the index today, and his take can be summed up as, "Like so many things related to both Walmart and sustainability, there is both more and less going on here than meets the eye," Makower writes:

Despite what the headlines have been saying the past few days, this isn't a product-rating scheme -- at least not yet, and likely not for several years. For now, Walmart will be using the results of the 15-question survey to assess companies. The questions, as you'll see, don't get down to the product level. In a second phase, the company plans to develop more sector-specific questions -- say, for agricultural products or jewelry or electronics. Eventually, the company hopes that the Index will address individual products. But that's not currently in the works.

Another key point: Walmart isn't rating, grading, or ranking companies, let alone products. It hasn't established a set of criteria or set a bar for performance. This isn't an eco-labeling scheme. Rather, it is a means for providing transparency about companies, allowing them and others to compare companies to one another, showing how each performs. The information will be one of many factors it will use to assess companies. It may be a tiebreaker, all other factors (price, quality, availability, etc.) being equal.


The full article is available on GreenBiz.com, and more information from Walmart is online at WalmartStores.com.