Walmart's sustainability plan inspires corporate America to take action

Elizabeth Sturcken

A few weeks ago, I was at Walmart in Mountain View, Calif., to hear President Obama talk about why we need to act now on climate change, what he is doing about it and why there’s no long-term tradeoff between the environment and a healthy economy.  

He was at Walmart to highlight private-sector leadership on climate and sustainability.

For some, the notion of Walmart being a leader on sustainability is as unlikely as the thought of a president paying a visit to a big-box department store. But the reality is that after almost 10 years of hard work, Walmart is driving supply chains and markets on sustainability in a way that only regulation could accomplish in the past.

How did Walmart get there? By setting aggressive goals and going after them.

The result: Real environmental progress for Walmart and throughout their supply chain.

“More and more companies like Walmart are realizing that wasting less energy isn’t just good for the planet, it’s good for business,” Obama said to the backdrop of an aisle with a price sign touting the retailer’s famous ‘Everyday Low Price’ sign. “It’s good for the bottom line.”

Leading corporations flocked to expo

That sustainability is good for business was also evident at Walmart’s first Sustainable Products Expo in Bentonville, Ark., in April. Thousands of suppliers – and quite of few of their chief executives – were there to talk about sustainability and to show off their products.

On stage with Walmart at the expo we saw leading brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg’s and General Mills stepping forward and committing to action on fertilizer and recycling.

These are two of the biggest areas of opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Walmart’s supply chain, and the commitments by expo participants were inspired by the company’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain by 20 million metric tons by 2015

A system-wide approach

After 25 years of working with business, we know that setting goals matters in making real and lasting change. To get the kind of environmental results needed to address climate change, you need a systems-wide approach and you must work across your supply chain.

It requires pushing suppliers hard and working with them to reduce energy use, redesign products and change the way their factories operate.

Turns out that aggressive and achievable goals – plus a lot of work – can yield results. Today, we’re seeing other companies follow Walmart.

Change is hard and won’t happen over night

The Environmental Defense Fund worked with Walmart for years to craft the company’s groundbreaking emissions goal.

It also took years working with Walmart to create a new chemicals policy that focuses on making safer products through ingredient disclosure, moving products to known safer chemicals and insisting that the retailer’s own consumables private brands meet the high standard of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for Environment program. 

But if you have the North Star as a goal you know where to go. Walmart and its suppliers are seeing opportunities to make improvements – not because they’re required to do so, but because it’s good business.

I don’t think that many chief executives had gathered together in Bentonville at the same time ever, much less to push for sustainability. But power gathers where the action is – and action comes from thinking big and setting goals.

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