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ViewPoint: Walmart and Sustainability — Oxymoron, Salvation, or Both?

In this week’s ViewPoint, Sea Change Co-Host Bill Baue presents a commentary he wrote on Walmart’s new Sustainable Product Index that first appeared on CSRwire.

Walmart and Sustainability. That pairing of terms triggers strong reactions, usually falling into roughly three camps:

The “oxymoron” camp. They believe Walmart’s business model of overdriven underpaid factory workers pumping out cheap goods into thousand-mile supply chains that feed a consumption-based society inherently and unavoidably conflicts with sustainability.

The “salvation” camp. They welcome Walmart using its market muscle as a “bully pulpit” to push sustainability advances from the top down — which arguably produces more change quicker than grassroots, bottom-up sustainability initiatives.

And then there’s the rest of us. We see truth in both of these two contradictory ideas (to paraphrase the maxim from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I include myself, because I lived in this schizophrenia for almost a year while I wrote Walmart’s first sustainability report in 2007. I was keenly skeptical of the Goliath’s conversion to the religion of sustainability, and cautiously hopeful of the promise of grander conversions that Walmart’s change of heart heralded. I continue to straddle both sides.

Now, two years later, Walmart just unveiled its Sustainable Product Index, which provides fuel for both fires. The index has been in development for over a year. In a nutshell, it poses 15 questions to 100,000 of its suppliers worldwide. The questions fall into four broad categories: energy and climate; material efficiency; natural resources; and people and community. The future goal of the index is to translate the data into simple ratings on products’ sustainability to inform consumers’ buying decisions.

Walmart Chief Merchandising Officer John Fleming called the survey “a key first step toward establishing real transparency in our supply chain.” CEO Mike Duke called the index a tool “to help enable sustainable consumption.”

Chalk one up for “salvation,” if this rhetoric proves true. Peek beneath the hood, however, and the oxymoronists may win this round. As Joel Makower of GreenBiz points out, Walmart scores a point for including social issues under the sustainability umbrella — which often focuses exclusively on environmental concerns. But, the five questions in the “people and community” bucket “barely scratch the surface,” he notes. “For example, they don’t address most worker issues, like wages, health care, and the right to air grievances,” Makower states – not to mention the right to unionize, an area where I witnessed the company vacillate back and forth over taking a clear stance.

This points to the difficulty of distilling complex sustainability issues into bite-sized “ratings” for easy comprehension by ill-informed consumers. For example, UK retailer Tesco introduced carbon labeling last year to much fanfare, but the practice of listing carbon footprints on products came under fire for confusing consumers. Before that, US outdoor-wear maker Timberland introduced its Our Footprint and Green Index Rating. They provide data about social and environmental impacts from product manufacturing and use in a box resembling food “nutrition facts” labels on some of its packaging. Here again, these laudatory efforts met with some skepticism on their limitations at their introduction — trusty Makower said, “as a ‘nutritional’ label, Timberland’s leaves me — well, hungry for more.”

The difference with Walmart is, of course, scale. In a word, Walmart can change the world by asking all its suppliers to report on the sustainability of their products — and by showing preference to suppliers who rate better. And as Ecological Intelligence author Daniel Goleman points out, Walmart’s rating scheme also holds promise for changing consumer habits toward preferring sustainable products — a true game-changer.

But the question always returns to first principles: is product consumption really the path to sustainability? Or is it more through de-materialization – products not consumed, sold, or produced in the first place? In other words, the logical conclusion of the oxymoronist line of reasoning is a world without Walmart. The logical extension of the salvationist view is a radically transformed Walmart radically transforming the world — toward sustainability. I would love to see a world without Walmart — or more accurately, a world based on a different economic model than the perpetual growth model Walmart exemplifies and excels in. But the realist in me realizes Walmart ain’t going away any time soon, so I also root for it to change the world for the better, if it can.

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