Wal-mart: Leading the way on global sustainability?

While big box stores may be an easy target for critics who bash their significant environmental impacts, one national bohemoth is taking steps to inform its customers just how environmentally-friendly each product is.  Yesterday, Wal-mart unveiled a plan for a “sustainability index” label to academic, industry and government representatives  at its Arkansas headquarters.
The giant retailer ($406 billion in revenues in 2008) is developing an ambitious, comprehensive, and fiendishly complex plan to measure the sustainability of every product it sells. Wal-Mart has been working quietly on what it calls a “sustainability index” for more than a year, and it will take another year or two for labels to appear on products. But the company’s grand plan-“audacious beyond words” is how one insider describes it-has the potential to transform retailing by requiring manufacturers of consumer products to dig deep into their supply chains, measure their environmental impact, and compete on those terms for favorable treatment from the world’s most powerful retailer.
But why would Wal-mart take on such a Hurculean task?  Besides the obvious cynical answer (they are a corporation out to make money), Wal-mart execs say they see this as a way to  inform consumers of the different between “green-washing” and truly sustainable production and increase efficiency of global production, perhaps even lowering costs to consumers in the process.
The company also said for the record they do not want ownership of this index– rather, they set out to spur a collaborative effort to develop a wealth of information about the international supply chain.  In remarks published on Wal-mart’s web site, the Mike Duke, Wal-mart’s President and CEO stated that in order for this venture to succeed, it needed to be a global effort with the ultimate goal of providing for a better future for the world’s citizens.

“If we get this right…the Index will drive higher quality and lower costs,” Duke said. “It will mean more innovative products that lower carbon output, that promote clean air and water, and that create a more transparent and responsible supply chain. And it will make us even stronger businesses, bringing us ever closer to our customers and what they need to live better …20…50…100 years from now.”

And who can fault that?  While the implementation of this plan is still several years away, it’s heartening to see that a company like Wal-mart, with such vast global influence, is not only taking an interest in sustainability, but taking a concrete action to measure how its suppliers are doing, and engaging environmental experts from acadamia, industry and the government to help develop guidelines that could potentially revitalize how the world produces consumer goods.
For more on Wal-mart’s sustainability index plan, check out yesterday’s New York Times article.