Wal-Mart Trying to Measure Sustainability

by Kas

On July 16, 2009, Wal-Mart announced that it will develop a sustainable product rating system that can be used to evaluate the sustainability of the products they sell in their stores.  As a reminder, Wal-Mart sells a lot of products to a lot of people.  According to its website, Wal-Mart âserves customers and members more than 200 million times per week at more than 7,900 retail units under 62 different banners in 15 countries.â  Wal-Martâs sustainability initiatives are diverse and plentiful (a curious dichotomy given the stigma created by their propensity for union busing and low wage employment).

The goal of the rating system is to convey information to the consumer about the materials used to make the product (are they safe?), the quality of the products (is it well-made?), and the manner in which the products were produced (was it made responsibly?).  The sustainable product rating system will be developed in three phases.  Ultimately, data will be used to inform the creation of a rating system for consumers.  To get there, they must first survey the 100,000 plus Wal-Mart suppliers and then use the results of the survey to develop a global database of information about the life cycles of their products. 

The survey (download a PDF) comprises 15 questions about the following four topics:

1) Energy and Climate: Reducing Energy Costs and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
2) Material Efficiency: Reducing Waste and Enhancing Quality
3) Natural Resources: Producing High Quality, Responsibly Sourced Raw Materials
4) People and Community: Ensuring Responsible and Ethical Production

The environmental and occupational health community should be joyous to see Wal-Martâs attention to subject areas that flirt with public health issues.  However, will this flirtation be understood by all 100,000 plus surveyed suppliers?  In reviewing the 15 questions, the following terms stood out because they appear to be important criteria for a sustainable product rating system, they appear to be important environmental and occupational health considerations, and they are terms for which globally-recognized definitions do not exist.

The terms are:

  • corporate greenhouse gas emissions
  • solid waste
  • water use reduction targets
  • social compliance evaluations

I wager that I can define all four of these terms and that my definitions will not match yours.  Game on.

I postulate that without further explanation and clarity regarding the intent and meaning of the questions asked in the survey the results will be so varied and diverse that they will stifle development of an effective sustainable product rating system.

Kas is an industrial hygienist studying public health in the DC metro area.

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I undertand the skepticism of Wal-Mart's motivation but on the other hand, this will have a large downstream effect due to the scale of the Wal-Mart operation. Half a loaf is better than none - at least they seem to know they need to move in this direction. Now for that crowd control training in NY.....

By Dave Smith (not verified) on 22 Jul 2009 #permalink

If this initiative works, it could be useful - but from reading their 15 questions, I can't see how it it will be able to produce any kind of meaningful rating. Of the terms Kas calls out, "social compliance evaluations" is particularly vague. Does that just mean that you follow applicable laws, like environmental and workplace safety laws? Or that your company's presence actually benefits the community in some way? Unless Wal-Mart gives its suppliers more guidance on how to answer these questions, it'll be hard to get any kind of comparable data out of this.