Walmart pushes sustainability index


Two years ago, Walmart scrapped its 19-year slogan, “Always Low Prices,” for a new motto that was a little more warm and fuzzy: “Save Money. Live Better.”

The roll-out signaled a shift in marketing and repositioning strategies to lure more affluent consumers, too (I mean, c’mon, an ad in Vogue for a Walmart fashion line?). The mass merchandiser has since regrouped, but is still pushing the theme that because you shop at Walmart, you’re living better.

And now, you’re making the world a better place.

Walmart threw its global shoulder into a sustainability product index initiative last week. Forget cap-and-trade legislation, ignore international commissions. Follow the smiley face instead.

The retailer wants to create a single source of data for evaluating the sustainability of products. A capitalist approach to the greening of the planet.

“I do believe consumers and societies today have much higher expectations of us as retailers and suppliers,” said Walmart CEO Mike Duke during the kickoff July 16, dubbed the “Sustainability Milestone Meeting.” (Watch the meeting’s individual speeches.)

Shoppers want to save money, Duke explained, “but they’re smarter.” And they want and expect greater transparency related to products, manufacturers and, yes, even farmers.

“We might as well get used to it,” Duke said.

The corporate giant is asking its supply chain to answer 15 questions about sustainability. Each of Walmart’s 100,000 global suppliers will have to be accountable for its sustainability, and disclose its actions to the world.

The questions range from “Have you measured your corporate greenhouse gas emissions?” (and, if so, “Have you set publicly available greenhouse gas reduction targets?”) to “Have you established… sustainability purchasing guidelines… that address issues such as environmental compliance, employment practices and product/ingredient safety?” (Read Walmart’s 15 Questions for Suppliers.)

According to a news report on, Walmart’s announcement was illustrated with a carbon-neutral egg farm, “where hens were raised in mobile, solar-powered hen houses, and fed locally-grown wheat, then their manure was returned to the wheat fields as fertilizer.”

Walmart is also providing seed money to create a consortium of universities, led by Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas, to direct suppliers, retailers, governments and NGOs down the sustainability index path to a giant, global database of information (a database Walmart insists it doesn’t want to create or own). It’s Walmart’s goal that this database, this index, become the eco-measuring stick for all consumer decisions.

With one hand, I applaud Walmart, because the concept is certainly laudable. But I’m waving my other, more skeptical (real-world?) hand in the air to question who will bear the costs. Heck, even answering the questions will take substantial resources (time/staffing/research).

We all want to save money and live better. I’m just not sure Walmart’s edict will translate into financial savings and better lives for small suppliers, farmers and growers. In fact, I’m pretty sure it won’t.

(Read Walmart’s sustainability index fact sheet.)


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