Walmart's Sustainability Report Reveals Successes, Shortcomings

It's no easy task turning a ship as large as Walmart's, but the world's largest retailer is steadily making progress on many environmental targets it has unveiled over the past five years.

In its 2010 Global Sustainability report released Tuesday, the company described its efforts over the course of a year in which it made a slew of notable headlines: In July Walmart revealed plans to create a Sustainability Index rating the attributes of its products, while in February, it announced it would squeeze 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its massive global supply chain by 2015.

The origin of both of initiatives can be traced to 2005, when the behemoth threw down the sustainability gauntlet with three aggressive -- and largely aspirational -- goals designed to trim the company's massive environmental footprint: using 100 percent renewable energy, creating zero waste, and selling sustainable products.

In the renewable energy category, the company set three GHG goals for its own operations: design and open a viable store prototype in every market that's up to 30 percent more energy efficient and generates up to 30 percent fewer emissions; double its U.S. truck fleet efficiency by late 2015; and cut emissions at its existing facilities 20 percent by 2012, relative to a 2005 baseline.

The company has succeeded in opening an energy efficient prototype in every market globally, and since 2005, Walmart has improved its fleet efficiency by 60 percent. To date, the company has also cut emissions generated at its existing stores, clubs and distribution centers by 5.1 percent since 2005, putting the company about 25 percent toward its 2012 goal.

However, the company's absolute carbon footprint has continued to grow, despite it improving facility performance and reducing its carbon intensity over the last two years. In response, the company set the 2015 goal of avoiding 20 million metric tons, which is about 1.5 times the projected cumulative growth of its emissions over the next five years.

"Because the Walmart supply system is many times larger than the company's direct footprint, in many cases the biggest, fastest and most economical GHG reductions are not at the retail-level, but rather up or down the value-chain of consumer products, in raw material extraction, product manufacturing, transportation, customer use, or product end-of-life," Walmart said in its 2010 Global Sustainability Report.

The company wants to improve the energy efficiency of its top 200 Chinese supplier factories 20 percent, per unit of production, by 2012, relative to a 2007 baseline. So far, 119 factories have improved by more than 5 percent.

The company has never said publicly how close or far it is from its goal of using 100 percent green power. It does, however, offer a glimpse into a slew of renewable energy projects under its belt around the globe, such as Puerto Rico's largest multi-site solar power project that will generate some 4,700 kilowatts of power when completed over the next five years.

The company so far has 30 solar power projects online in California and Hawaii, while a store in Baja California will produce a fifth of the location's needs. Construction of Mexico's first wind energy park for a retailer was completed in late 2009, and now supplies energy to 348 Walmart units.

Walmart wants to eventually create zero waste, but doesn't report on the amount of waste it generates, Elizabeth Sturcken of Environmental Defense Fund pointed out in a blog post yesterday. More specifically, Walmart wants to eliminate landfill waste from U.S. stores and Sam's Clubs locations by 2025, and so, far, it has managed to redirect 64 percent of its solid waste.

It has also identified how to shift all of its jewelry boxes to recycled content, but is still grappling with eliminating PVC from private brand and other types of packaging.

It is unclear how the company is progressing toward its goal of reducing packaging by 5 percent worldwide by 2013; the company has collected information on more than 14,000 Walmart and Sam's Club items but has yet to finalize the metric.

The company has cut the weight of its plastic bag waste by 16.1 percent -- nearly halfway to its 2013 target of 33 percent.

Image courtesy of Walmart.