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Is Walmart’s Sustainability Consortium A Genuine Effort To Develop Better Products?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Tuesday February 9th, 2010 | 4 Comments

Walmart is certainly not a stranger to controversy and criticism, and neither is its attempt to develop sustainability standards for products. Last summer the world’s largest retailer announced plans last summer to develop a Sustainability Index which would serve as a single data source for evaluating a product’s sustainability. The Sustainability Index initiative then launched the Sustainability Consortium, a group representing governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic and business interests to develop standards which can be used to rate the sustainability of products.

The Consortium’s website states that it “develops transparent methodologies, tools and strategies to drive a new generation of products and supply networks that address environmental, social and economic imperatives.” .The Consortium’s website also states that it “advocates for a transparent process and system, not individuals or organizations.” However, the Consortium does not support third party-rating systems such as EPEAT. As Treehugger.com put it, the Consortium “decided to take matters into their own hands and push for consumer outreach on electronics themselves.”

Should we be concerned that the Sustainability Consortium is a byproduct of Walmart’s Sustainability Index? Joel Makower, executive editor of Greenbiz.com interviewed the Consortium’s Co-directors, Jay Golden from the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, and Jon Johnson, from the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Johnson told Makower, “The Walmart Supplier Sustainability Assessment Tool is really not directly relevant or related to what we’re doing. What we’re doing in creating a system that would enable companies to get information on product categories or products. It’s not at the company level.”

Makower expressed concerns about the Consortium:

While I don’t doubt for a second the sincerity or integrity of Johnson, Golden, and their colleagues, and their stated intention of avoiding conflicts and pursuing transparency, I’m concerned about the optics of it all: the perception that major manufacturers are helping to create the methodologies or otherwise set the rules of rating products, presumably to their advantage. And I worry that this perception could undermine the reputation of the work the group will undertake.

Treehugger.com expressed other concerns about the Consortium:

Shall we file this in the “Just What We Needed Dept”? It’s yet another group getting in on the green gadget evaluation and labeling systems, this time launched by the very folks you really can’t trust to be unbiased when it comes to electronic products and promoting their eco-features. The Sustainability Consortium has been launched by heavy hitters in the electronics and retail sectors as an effort to help consumers identify – and of course purchase – ‘green’ electronics.

If it can live up to its stated objectives, the Consortium will be an asset in the world of sustainable product manufacturing. However, the concerns cited by Makower and Treehugger are valid. The magazine, Good asked an important question about the Consortium: Is the effort a genuine one for the customer’s benefit or a veiled attempt at appeasing and benefiting from the green movement? What do you think?


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Categorized: Clean Technology|

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  • Kevin Dooley

    The Sustainability Consortium is not against existing third party sustainability assessments like EPEAT. Nor did we forge into Electronics to topple ENERGY STAR. Far from it–we chose the electronics sector because it was relatively mature in terms of its existing standards and reporting initiatives, and we wanted to learn how to operate with such existing standards. Our overall goal is to bring some consistency to the reporting of sustainability information, and to do so across sectors of consumer goods. So while ENERGY STAR is great for electronics, is doesn't do much for food or clothing. By researching the impacts that these existing standards are addressing, we can better design measurement and reporting standards that have commonalities across sectors, reducing confusion for retailers and lessening reporting costs for companies.

  • Jeremy Benkin

    The only way to properly address this need is with ISO standards, specifically 14025 that provide for a an open standard development, third-party testing and and product disclosures. What may be important for some consumers may not be for others. While ENERGY STAR has been great at promoting energy efficency, it doesn't address the toxins contained in the product. The Consortium has a great opportunity if it works to develop these standards in an open format.

  • http://carolsenergynotes.wordpress.com/ Carol G

    I attended a dairy and sustainability conference here in Madison, WI and wrote about it on my blog [hopefully you can click into that].
    The dairy industry's leading executives were there focusing on fitting into Wal Mart's plans, which meant quantifying greenhouse gases and changing up their marketing to take advantage of green words that are not regulated in labeling yet, like “sustainable”. And to be less glib, they also heard from farmers that have already transferred manure to anaerobic digesters that generate electricity from methane, or have already gone organic, or who already pasture feed. My hope is that Wal Mart will look at animal living conditions, animal density, needs for pasturing…

  • http://carolsenergynotes.wordpress.com/ Carol G

    I attended a dairy and sustainability conference here in Madison, WI and wrote about it on my blog [hopefully you can click into that].
    The dairy industry's leading executives were there focusing on fitting into Wal Mart's plans, which meant quantifying greenhouse gases and changing up their marketing to take advantage of green words that are not regulated in labeling yet, like “sustainable”. And to be less glib, they also heard from farmers that have already transferred manure to anaerobic digesters that generate electricity from methane, or have already gone organic, or who already pasture feed. My hope is that Wal Mart will look at animal living conditions, animal density, needs for pasturing…