Sustainability Efforts Mean Big Environmental Impact at Wal-Mart

by Todd Traub  on Monday, Jul. 2, 2012 12:00 am  

Wal-Mart’s push for environmental sustainability, initiated by then-CEO Lee Scott in 2005, has ranged from small improvements in packaging to ambitious experimentation with building materials and even hybrid-fuel delivery trucks.

If nothing else, Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts have made it easier to open toys.

In 2005 Wal-Mart launched its sustainability program, designed to encourage corporate environmental responsibility. In attempting to take leadership on the issue and drive the global conversation, Wal-Mart established three broad goals: to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, create zero waste and to sell products that sustain people and the environment.

Wal-Mart has annually described its progress toward those goals in what have become known as Global Responsibility reports, and while the company has received a number of awards for its initiatives, which have grown to include diversity efforts, it has also drawn criticism and earned mixed reviews.

To be sure, there have been tangible achievements. At Wal-Mart’s recent 2012 Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting, CEO Mike Duke mentioned the example of toy packaging.

“All those metal wires,” Duke said. “And why does it have to have so many metal wires to tie the toys to the package?”

Duke praised the Wal-Mart team that found a way to alter the packaging and eliminate the wasteful wires. It may have been a small change, he said, but he noted that such changes add up when factored into the massive sales of a company that in fiscal 2012 rang up $447 billion in revenue.

“It kept 1 billion feet of wire from going to the landfills, which was enough to wrap around the Earth nearly eight times,” Duke said. “This changed the whole toy industry of how packaging was done. ... With Wal-Mart little things add up to big things.”

And the sustainability efforts have certainly accomplished more than eliminating a few wires here and there.

In its 2012 Global Responsibility report, Wal-Mart touted achievements in 2011 that included reducing waste by 80 percent, expanding locally grown produce sold, the Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, U.S. customer savings of $1 billion on fresh fruits and vegetables, a new “Great for You” icon to help identify healthy food options, using 1.1 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy, an integrated sustainability index, response to natural disasters, expansion of the global direct farm program, and an increase of diversity and inclusion for women and minorities.

“We’re now seen as a leader on sustainability,” Chairman Rob Walton told the meeting via video hookup from Brazil. “But with that recognition come higher expectations. And that’s how it should be. We’ve set bold goals for ourselves. And government leaders, NGOs and customers are watching our progress.”

But not everyone likes what they’ve seen. A recent article in Mother Jones criticized Wal-Mart for falling short on a number of its announced sustainability goals, including solid waste elimination from U.S. stores, energy efficiency increases in Chinese factories, greenhouse gas reduction at stores and distribution centers worldwide, and labor and environmental law compliance from Chinese suppliers.

“And even where Wal-mart has made its goals, questions linger,” the Mother Jones article said. “Wal-mart concedes that the use of murky subcontractors is widespread in China, Africa, the Middle East, and Bangladesh. They won’t provide details about how they have achieved their goals, whether suppliers were asked or compelled to share factory information, and whether any suppliers lost orders or were fired for unsatisfactory responses.”



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