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Michael Kourabas headshot

Walmart Commits to More Sustainable Food. Is it Serious?


On Monday, Walmart held its second semi-annual Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting -- webcast live and re-aired the following day -- and announced a new pledge to help create a more sustainable food system. Taken at face value, the country’s largest food retailer appears to be making a real commitment to help develop a healthier, more affordable, and less environmentally damaging food supply.  Walmart’s real legacy in this area, though, will be measured by how much concrete action follows its ambitious commitments.

At the outset of the milestones webcast, the company’s CEO, Doug McMillon, proclaimed that in order to meet the population’s increasing food demands, Walmart and its suppliers need to become more sustainable players in the global food supply chain.  According to this new commitment, Walmart will aim to achieve this by ensuring that the food it sells, and the supply chain from which that food comes, is: (i) more affordable (to the environment, society, and customers); (ii) safer and more transparent; (iii) healthier; and (iv) more accessible.

Like many corporate marketing efforts, in both the webcast and the company’s concurrent announcements it is difficult to parse the genuine commitments from the hollow promises; the real passion from the empty rhetoric meant to patronize the most environmentally conscious consumers and NGOs.

To look strictly at its pledges, Walmart sure seems to acknowledge that bold action is required if it is to contribute to reversing the trends of environmental degradation and resource scarcity.  The company, which claims that environmental sustainability is now an “essential ingredient” in its business model, already says that it strives to sell only products that “sustain people and the environment.”

So, how exactly is the company planning to increase the sustainability of the food it buys and sells?

Walmart’s pillars of food sustainability

Affordability.  First and foremost is Walmart’s pledge to reduce the “true cost” -- i.e., the cost to consumers, society, and the environment -- of the food it sells over the next decade, by targeting reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water usage; increasing food yields; and promoting the adoption of efficient and sustainable agricultural practices.

How, exactly, will Walmart do these things?  For one, the company touts its responsible sourcing practices, and at the milestone meeting Walmart announced a commitment to sustainably source at least 50 percent of the palm oil used in its private brands in Brazil and 100 percent of beef consumed there over the course of the next year. Responsible sourcing is also something the company spills a good amount of ink on in its 2014 Global Responsibility Report (CSR report).

Importantly, in 2010 Walmart pledged to eliminate 20 million metric tons of GHG from its supply chain by end of 2015, and though the company stood behind that commitment on Monday, its latest CSR report announced that it had thus far eliminated just 7.55 million metric tons of GHG and hoped to get that figure to 18 million metric tons by the end of next year.

Moreover, though Walmart has become more energy efficient over the last decade, its absolute GHG emissions are rising as the company continues to expand.  As others have noted, there are inherent, unresolved tensions between Walmart’s business model -- adding massive stores surrounded by massive parking lots -- and its aspirations for sustainability.

Safety and Transparency. Walmart also committed to selling “safer” food (i.e., food that isn’t contaminated) and providing more information about the products it sells.  For instance, it promised to increase food testing in China and to continue its practice of unannounced third party audits at suppliers.  On the subject of transparency, Walmart plans to install video monitoring systems on the farms that provide Walmart’s pork (as a way to improve animal welfare in the supply chain), and to continue to focus on product traceability in meat and seafood.

Health.  Walmart and its foundation also aim to “make healthy eating easier” by providing nutrition education to 4 million U.S. households, starting in 2015.  In addition, the company is phasing out the unhealthier ingredients in its own food; its web announcement notes that Walmart has thus far reduced sodium in its brands by more than 13 percent, and sugar by more than 10 percent. The company’s 2014 CSR report also indicated that Walmart has targeted “food deserts” for new store locations, something that conveniently helps the bottom line and gives people greater access to cheap food and other goods.

Accessibility.  Finally, Walmart hopes to increase access to its food products by providing 4 billion “healthier meals” to those in need over the next five years.  On its website, the company boasts that it has already donated more than 1.5 billion pounds of food since 2010, and at the milestone meeting, Walmart announced that it had already exceeded its 2010 goal of giving $2 billion in cash and in-kind donations to fight hunger by 2015, having given more than $2.6 billion to date.  Perhaps more than in any of the other pillars, it appears that Walmart is making real and significant progress toward fighting hunger.

The importance of real action

As the Times pointed out, "Walmart’s food policies and practices have a tremendous impact given its size,” so if -- and this is a big “if” -- there is real action in support of the lofty promises, Walmart and its supply chain could go a long way toward changing food policy in this country, particularly as it relates to climate change.

In some cases, like Walmart’s efforts to combat hunger, it appears that the company is taking measurable steps to meet -- or even exceed -- its goals.  Yet, in other places, the company is conspicuously light on the details, and we may have good reason to be suspicious.  In the past, Walmart’s “splashy” sustainability commitments have tended to be much more style than substance and have attracted accusations of "green washing."

Regardless of whether or not Walmart meets its goals and follows through on its myriad pledges, however, the mere fact of the company’s stated focus on sustainability could send a strong message to Big Food.

Moreover, thanks in part to a recent campaign by OxFam, Walmart’s announcement is just the latest in a series of commitments by major food production companies -- many of which, such as Cargill, General Mills, and Kellog, are a part of Walmart’s supply chain -- to focus more on sustainability.

A few months ago, for example, General Mills explicitly acknowledged the dangers of climate change and that “Business, together with governments, NGOs and individuals, needs to act to reduce the human impact on climate change.”  Within “key ingredient supply chains,” General Mills will now require suppliers to “demonstrate improvements in material environmental, social, and economic outcomes.”  The company also committed to achieve “zero net deforestation in high-risk supply chains by 2020."

Like Walmart, the size and power of General Mills means that its pledges should incentivize producers to reduce their environmental impact, who may, in turn, encourage farmers to improve their own practices.

Hopefully, the promises of Walmart, General Mills, and others will amount to real change and a shift in the way Big Food does business.  Time will tell.

Image credit: Flickr/jeepersmedia

Michael Kourabas headshot

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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