Wal-Mart – the Leader of Sustainability Indexing?

Wal-Mart is planning quite a “first”: it will implement a new “sustainability index,” by which it will report the environmental impact of each and every piece of merchandise available for sale. Many of the corporation’s 60,000 suppliers are up in arms, as compliance will likely require them to dig deep into their supply chains. But many proponents of sustainability are also skeptical. Will the index be yet another incomplete measurement of so-called sustainability that ultimately leads consumers astray, or worse?

The index is intended to help consumers navigate conflicting or misleading claims on merchandise, Wal-Mart’s senior director of business strategy and sustainability Rand Waddoups reportedly claimed. The index will assess items using a tool called the “Life Cycle Assessment,” which measures a product’s environmental impact in its manufacture, use, and disposal. The corporation is considering measuring products’ social impact as well, by dividing its stock into four categories: energy and greenhouse gas emissions; natural resources; materials; and “people and communities.” Wal-Mart created the index with the assistance of faculty from Harvard, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.
Yet many are wary of the index. Reportedly, some faculty that helped create the index even hesitated to participate in the consortium at which the index will be revealed because of, well, Wal-Mart’s reputation. After all, who decided that Wal-Mart should be the nation’s sustainability police? And will Wal-Mart report its other sustainability measures transparently? After all, cataloging the sustainability of individual products may not be enough to make Wal-Mart as a whole sustainable….
Wal-Mart is scheduled to reveal details of the index Thursday at a consortium at its corporate headquarters in Arkansas. As for information on the index’s long-term impact, only time will tell.

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.

4 responses

  1. It’s good that we have skeptics, which the author of this article obviously is. However, it’s valuable that we also have some optimistic voices in the sustainability community as well.
    The bottom line is that the world’s largest retailer is making ground breaking strides to deliver social and environmental product data about the goods it offers.
    Believe me, Wal-Mart’s efforts should be encouraged so that other businesses follow suit and improve the indexes over time.
    If you keep “poo-pooing” efforts like this based on historical business practices, we will never more forward.

  2. Well, let’s be honest. Wal Mart does indeed have a past history of being very aggressive with minimizing expenses and competing with things they perceive as threats – sometimes to the detriment of third parties.
    I most definitely applaud this development, as well as the many other things Wal Mart has been doing, but hey, we gotta keep the pressure on a little bit. I think this author still gives them the benefit of the doubt, but is wise to acknowledge the potential controversy…

  3. Why create another standard that will only be used at one retailer. What about one with broad market appeal, such as JumpGauge Interactive Labeling (http://www.JumpGauge.com/)? Consumers could use it at all retailers, not just Walmart. Interactive labeling also offers greater transparency and knowledge transfer than a simple questionnaire

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