Wal-Mart's Eco-Index

Ashley Thorne

Wal-Mart’s motto is “Save money, live better.” The concept behind the retail giant is that everyone should be able to buy quality products and groceries. And now, say Wal-Mart leaders, all shoppers should also be able to know the social and environmental “impact” their purchases will make. At its Sustainable Milestone Meeting last week, Wal-Mart announced its plan to create a global sustainable product index, which “will bring about a more transparent supply chain, drive product innovation and, ultimately, provide consumers the information they need to assess the sustainability of products.” 

The announcement garnered much attention, including an article in the New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom, who imagined the sorts of things that the index will measure: “Did this T-shirt come from a cotton crop that was sprayed with pesticide? Was excessive packaging used to ship these diapers?” Rosenbloom was surprised by the “Wal-Mart meeting that sounds as if it were dreamed up by liberal-arts environmentalists,” and indeed the project is marked by a flavor of higher education.

In fact, Wal-Mart asked the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University to help pioneer a sustainability consortium of NGOs, suppliers, retailers, and government to “develop a global database of information on the lifecycle of products.” Wal-Mart will fund the project at the outset but hopes other entities will eventually take ownership of it.

ASU appears to have been chosen for its Global Institute on Sustainability as well as its School of Sustainability (the first in the nation), and U Arkansas for its Applied Sustainability Center. In a consortium press release, Jon Johnson, executive director of the APC, said, that both universities “are committed to leading an effort that will change the way people view their impact on the environment.”

Wal-Mart’s plan is three-fold: assess the commitment to sustainability of its 100,000 suppliers; work with the consortium to gather information on how products are manufactured, assembled, and disposed; and create an index system (something like a colors code or numeric score on the store shelf) on which customers can base their purchasing choices.

Many companies are taking similar measures. UK-based Tesco, a grocery store chain, already uses carbon footprint tags on its supermarket shelves. Shoppers can compare: “240 g of CO2 in orange juice from concentrate, vs. 360 g in fresh-squeezed.” I’ve noticed in my catalogs that Pottery Barn now offers organic bedding and puts a small leaf symbol next to items that were made in “ecologically responsible” ways. Demonstrating commitment to the environment is now necessary for competitive business.

Eco-friendly shopping has typically been marketed to the wealthy and has made products more expensive. Apparel made out of bamboo, soy, or organic cotton is generally sold for double the price of regular clothing. But change is in the air. Customers increasingly expect that items created efficiently, using fewer natural resources, will cost less money to produce and less to purchase. In his speech at last week’s Milestone Meeting, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke outlined how consumers’ expectations have shifted:

Society’s expectations of retail are changing in three fundamental ways.

First, the economic crisis is leading consumers toward a “new normal” where they not only want to save money…they are getting smarter about saving money.

Second, in this age of social networks and instant information, consumers increasingly expect more transparency on the products they buy. Today, there is no trust without transparency.

There’s a third…longer term shift. We’re living in a world of increasing population and decreasing natural resources.

NAS has written a great deal about sustainability in higher education in recent months. We recognize many of the same patterns in the campus sustainability movement that characterized the campus diversity movement. NAS president Peter Wood is currently on a mountaintop in Switzerland at a conference where he will give a paper on how sustainability is a creature with three heads: environmental justice, economic justice, and social justice. Each of these three concepts is reshaping the college curriculum in a way that often owes more to political activism than intellectual enlightenment.

We hope the Wal-Mart initiative will avoid straying into this ideological terrain. To the extent that the plans for the index are motivated by efforts to be more efficient and help customers save money, it may be a useful exercise in frugality. Now if only Wal-Mart could bring back its price-slashing smiley face to install the sustainability tags...

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