May 6th, 2013
Increasingly, corporations are pushing their suppliers to reduce packaging, waste and energy use to save money and reduce carbon pollution. It’s been eight years since Walmart’s former CEO Lee Scott made a sustainability commitment. What progress have they made? What are other corporations doing to increase sustainability?
Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart, spoke of the company’s mission: saving people money so they can live better. “Sustainability came out of our efforts on both fronts,” she said, noting that in 2005, the CEO made a very specific commitment on behalf of the company, to work to get to 100% renewable energy, 0 waste and products that sustain the environment. That commitment is now embedded in the company culture, Thomas explained, bringing a focus to greater efficiency and reduced waste.
According to Aron Cramer, CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, what Walmart is doing, as the world’s largest retailer, has a great impact on other companies. “Many of the world’s biggest brands are suppliers to Walmart. So when Walmart starts to ask questions about packaging, about the amount of water that’s used, that has a ripple effect that magnifies the efforts of a lot of other companies.” In addition, Walmart is leading others by the power of example. “By elevating waste to such a prominent position in terms of how Walmart thinks about that is—it’s not intended in this way—but it’s almost an advocacy role, and it raises awareness of this issue.”
Thomas spoke of inviting NGOs into the initial conversation, asking them how to address some of the issues they were concerned about. While they were at first skeptical, they now advise the company on a regular basis. In providing examples of increased sustainability, she mentioned efforts to reduce non-recyclable packaging, setting the default on computers they sell to the energy-saving sleep mode, carrying more cold-water detergents and getting private-branded apparel manufactures to label clothing to be washed in cold water. Regarding products that have a bigger footprint, she said that if they do sell those products, they’ll offer other products so the consumer has choices.
Cramer followed that with the concept of “choice editing”—how do you push consumers to make healthier, more sustainable choices? Recalling tobacco information campaigns, he spoke of the role of educating the consumer.
Regarding corporate energy use, Thomas spoke of the company’s conversion to fluorescent bulbs in their stores, and the fact that now they are rolling out LED lights in the same way, educating consumers as they do. She went on to speak of Walmart’s use of renewable energy throughout the world. “In Mexico, by the end of this year we’ll have 700 stores that will be powered by renewables at least 80%,” she said. “We made a commitment that by the end of 2020, which is the cycle for remodeling for our stores, we’ll have 7B kW-h of renewable energy that we either procure or somehow put into our system, which is a 600% increase over what we’re doing today.” That’s enough to take 2 fossil fuel power plants off the grid, she added, or to power the city of Austin, TX, for 18 months.