On Monday, Walmart released its annual Global Responsibility Report highlighting the corporate behemoth’s progress towards meeting sustainability goals. Just how green is Walmart? On many counts, Walmart has made serious improvement. The company reduced waste, sold more locally-grown produce and increased its use of renewable energy. But it still has a long way to go before we can comfortably use the words “Walmart” and “sustainable” in the same sentence.
According to the report, Walmart reduced waste generated across all US operations by 80 percent; it committed to increasing the amount of locally-grown produce sold by 97 percent; and it sourced 1.1 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy. Those are all good developments, but we’re still reluctant to give Walmart a big pat on the back.
One of the chief criticisms of Walmart is that since it offers products at extremely low prices, the retail chain relies on low-quality, poorly made products that quickly enter the waste stream and need to be replaced. That’s how Walmart makes its money, and it would make little sense for it to move away from that business model.
In a conference call this morning, Wal-Mart Senior Vice President Andrea Thomas indicated that the company might improve the durability of its products based on consumer demand, but she stopped short of making any sort of commitment. Instead, she pointed to the company’s Integrated Sustainability Index, a scorecard to help buyers evaluate products. “What the Sustainability Index does is it provides information for us to get the right level of sustainability that our customers are looking for,” Thomas said. “We do now have the right information to get the right products that our customers are purchasing and doing that in a sustainable way.”
That all sounds good, but the scorecard is very much a work in progress. Right now, Walmart’s Sustainability Index is focused on broad categories instead of specific companies or products. “It takes a lot more information to get an item-by-item rating method,” Thomas acknowledged in the conference call.” But without information at the product level, how can consumers make informed decisions?
Walmart admits that there are challenges, and one of the bigger ones is figuring out how to deliver the right amount of information to consumers. “If you look at just one item, the ingredients of that item can come from places all over the world, so depending whet level you dig into there’s an infinite amount of information,” Thomas said. And therein lies the problem: Walmart, a model of corporate globalization, is so far removed from all of the components that of its supply chain that tracking the various ingredients is itself an overwhelming task.