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Decade-Long Walmart Partnership Offers Sustainability Lessons


When the world's largest retailer teams up with one of the most outspoken non-governmental organizations, the ripple effect is felt everywhere.  That's what's happened during a decade of cooperation between Walmart and the Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF recently touted the progress made during the past 10 years of this unprecedented partnership.  The organization accustomed to scrutinizing big business practices decided to set up shop in Walmart's hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, and connect from that dedicated office on a laundry list of environmental issues.  The NGO concentrated first on simply seeing things from Walmart's perspective.

We asked EDF's manager of corporate partnerships, Elizabeth Sturcken, what the biggest challenge was in taking on this retail giant and its carbon footprint. She answered:

"Ten years ago, when this partnership started, Environmental Defense Fund saw that Walmart was considering how to become more sustainable. Our job was to pile on the existing motivation by showing them the positive environmental impact they could have by using their scale to improve the way business was done.

"I think our biggest challenge back then was where to get started. There were so many opportunities to address, and Walmart, as a business, was moving so fast – we really just grabbed on and started learning the business. Only when we were able to identify Walmart’s biggest areas of environmental impact were we able to really start driving results at scale."

Learning that 90 percent of the potential for limiting carbon emissions was in Walmart's supply chain necessitated a look at how to achieve system-wide results with all those suppiers the company collaborated with on a regular basis, Sturcken explained. Its daunting $482 billion in annual sales gives Walmart the power to influence every other business in its vast supply chain as well as to motivate competitors. EDF was impressed that, in 2005, then Walmart CEO Lee Scott was calling for more sustainability in products sold, creating zero waste and eventually using all renewable energy.

Simply put, Walmart's trio of ambitious goals were:

  • To be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy

  • Create zero waste

  • Sell products that sustain people and the environment

One specific, ambitious, Walmart goal was to eliminate 20 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2015.  EDF reported the company not only met that goal, but exceeded it, by cutting out 28 MMT of pollution from its supply chain.

Walmart's senior director of global responsibility communications, Kevin Gardner, related: "Our journey in reaching these goals – in partnership with EDF – has enabled us to set realistic targets and milestones to track toward these goals -- and enhanced our ability to clearly quantify, track and report progress on a regular basis."

Gardner offered these ingredients for success that have helped Walmart achieve sustainability goals and that could be instrumental for other businesses looking to follow suit:

"Through this journey, our eyes were opened to a few key overarching sustainability trends that are essential for success":

  • We can’t create a solution alone: "We quickly realized that driving meaningful change requires 360 collaboration and convening expert/NGO partners such as EDF for meaningful expertise along the way, suppliers to create the most efficient supply chain possible, and even competitors to create solutions to shared problems. To gain a true systems change, we must all work together to identify the root of major problems and drive new, collaborative action that spurs lasting change."

  • Sustainability must make business sense: "Our work to reduce our environmental impact, like any other project, must also move the needle from a business bottom-line perspective in order for companies to engage in this work long-term. For efficiency, it involves capital decisions and staffing to execute, track and monitor projects. Walmart has been able to incorporate technologies and developments within our supply chain – from energy efficiency to reducing food waste – that have not only reduced our environmental impact, but also save us money as a company, which allows us to ensure the everyday low prices that our customers have come to expect."

  • Consumers want to buy products they feel good about -- without having to pay more: "In embarking on our sustainability journey, we quickly came to realize that consumers want to feel good about the sustainability of the products they are buying – without having to pay more. Walmart is committed to reducing the environmental impact of the products we sell, at no extra cost to the customer. Through our work with EDF, we were able to form the Sustainability Consortium and to develop the Walmart Sustainability Index, ultimately leading to the launch of our online Sustainability Leaders shop – which points customers to our best-in-class sustainable products, at everyday low costs. The Index and the Sustainability Leaders shop have been instrumental in inspiring our suppliers to do right by the environment and enabling us to do right by our customers."

Furthermore in its report, EDF suggested these tips for others in the industry who want to reach sustainability goals:

  • Be ambitious

  • Measure to manage

  • Persevere

  • Engage

  • Align on policy

Walmart influenced the agricultural community to achieve efficiencies in its use of fertilizer.  This is especially relevant to the production of corn and other leading commodity crops.  A Walmart-led initiative aims to reduce 7 MMT of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by the year 2020.

Walmart also spearheaded the Closed Loop Fund that encourages cities to bolster their recycling efforts, via zero-interest loans. It committed to more energy efficiencies in its factories in China.

A product as simple as a lightbulb has had a big impact because of the vast reach of a company like Walmart.  In 2007, the company promoted the sale of Compact Florescent (CFL) lightbulbs, helping its customers save energy at home.

Walmart has also made progress in modernizing the standards for safer ingredients in numerous consumer products, responding in part to coalition campaigns like Mind the Store that have urged retailers to scrutinize product safety. Walmart's Sustainable Chemistry Implementation Guide led the way for even more retailers to screen ingredients more closely in their supply chains.  Walmart is leading a trend toward full disclosure of product ingredients in its private-label products for Walmart and Sam's Club, while encouraging other brands to do the same.

The EDF partnership has always stressed that businesses must make sound and science-based, as well as business-based, decisions on tightening the supply chain.  Of its three main goals, Walmart has certainly led the way in selling sustainable products, while reporting a 82.4 percent reduction in waste in the United States.  It has the farthest to go to achieve 100 percent renewable energy, getting about a fourth of the way toward that goal by the end of 2014.

Said Walmart's Gardner: "We listened to our customers’ desire for more transparency into the products they are buying, and as a result, Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club worked with EDF, other NGOs, suppliers, academics, government and industry stakeholders to develop our policy on sustainable chemistry for the consumable products that we sell. Our customers expect that the products they buy are safe, affordable and sustainable, and this is one way we’re delivering on those expectations."

You can see more here about the timeline of the EDF and Walmart partnership.

Image credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Anne Brock headshotAnne Brock

Anne Brock is a University of Missouri journalism alumna and television news producer. She blogs at <a href="http://FlourSackMama.com">FlourSackMama.com</a&gt; about simple living and greener approaches to life for everyday families. She also freelances as a social media consultant and content creator.

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