Working toward sustainability with Walmart

Michelle Harvey

For the last six years, I’ve lived in Bentonville, AR, working with Walmart,  whose global headquarters is located here. My job, in part, is to help the world’s largest retailer find ways to bring healthier products to market, by shining a light on the ingredients in products that EDF believes need to be replaced.

Can a quality product contain a cancer-causing substance? I don’t think so. I’ve worked hard to convince Walmart of that, and together with my NGO colleagues offered alternatives that will result in an effective product, affordably priced, made with benign ingredients. The average Walmart supercenter carries hundreds of thousands of everyday products, from shampoo to eye shadow to baby lotion to spray cleaners. Change these products for the better – remove an unnecessary endocrine-disrupting fragrance enhancer, for example – and the health and environmental benefits can be huge.

 How huge? We’re about to find out. On Sept. 12, 2013, Walmart announced a new chemicals policy intended to bring better ingredients into its home and personal care products, targeting an initial set of roughly ten common chemicals of concern for “continuous reduction, restriction and elimination.” More importantly, Walmart’s policy calls for suppliers to use informed substitution, meaning what goes into the redesigned product has to be better than what came out. It’s a first for any retailer.

The road to sustainability

My colleagues and I also work with Walmart  to make the company more sustainable – from the kinds of products it sells, to the ways that they transport those products, to recycling the materials its uses every day. But do sustainable products and sustainable operations bring us closer as a society to sustainable consumption? That is, can we continue to buy and use what we want, when we want it, and still guarantee that our great great grandchildren will be able to do the same?

 Walmart is  a good place to start on the road toward true sustainability. After all, the world’s largest retailer – with some 220 million customers every week— is also the world’s largest customer, with more  than 100,000 suppliers that are eager to meet its needs and wants. So EDF began by helping Walmart develop a better list of wants, such as energy-efficient factories and food production using less water and fertilizer.

 A related part of my job is to help Walmart move toward a corporate goal of zero waste – that is 100% beneficial reuse of everything Walmart uses in its daily operations. That means no dumping of stuff into landfills and no incineration.

 What we’ve learned together is that there’s the easy stuff – give unused food to food banks, recycle shrink wrap and cardboard. And there’s dozens of other things that can be disassembled or recaptured or repurposed. But not everything is easy. The same things you can’t recycle at home – bathroom trash, broken items, food-contaminated packaging – are even tougher at Walmart scale. Finding ways to reuse things like that takes creativity and innovation.

 My conclusion, as EDF and Walmart travel down this road toward sustainability, is that we have to get better and better at keeping materials in play. The longer we can use what’s already been extracted, grown or created, the less quickly we need to extract, grow or create more.

 So that’s my goal. To get healthier, more sustainable products on store shelves in the short term, and, long term, to figure out how to use and reuse and recycle the stuff a consumer society produces in such abundance.

Thought for the day: Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.