Walmart suffers almost daily denigration in the blogosphere and fares not much better in the mainstream press. The motivations for the sentiments expressed are many and varied: low wages for its workers, alleged discriminatory practices, intense pressures on its suppliers, and a poorly perceived clientele (to wit, the viral People of Walmart series of photographs). Some critics, such as attorney Paul Samakow in The Washington Times, go so far as to call Walmart “the poster child for despicable behavior.” With thousands of lawsuits filed against it every year, that’s a tough point to argue against.
Still, there are two sides to every coin, and on the flip side of Walmart’s are its wholly laudable efforts to promote sustainability and renewable energy. Most recent among these is the Sustainable Products Expo, a Walmart-hosted, three-day event aimed at expanding the availability of sustainable products and promoting recycling. The invitees were the CEOs of powerhouses Cargill, PepsiCo, Kellogg, Keurig, Campbell Soup and Monsanto, along with reps from Dairy Farmers of America, several major conservation groups and the Investment Banking Division of Goldman Sachs. Collectively, the participating companies are behind more than $100 billion in Walmart sales.
Sustainability initiatives announced by major suppliers
It appears that there was some real substance to this meeting. Eight of the world’s largest food companies announced or renewed commitments intended to ensure that an affordable, sustainable food supply exists for the estimated 9+ billion people our planet will have to support by 2050. When fulfilled, these commitments are expected to bring another 8 million acres of farmland into sustainable agriculture programs and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 6 million metric tons.
Other new pledges announced at the Expo will advance Walmart’s own farmland optimization goals, with optimization of an estimated 10 million acres, and eliminate an additional 8.5 million metric tons of GHGs. With Cargill, Walmart is also developing a pilot program for improving beef supply chain visibility; with Procter & Gamble, Walmart will work to reduce the water-per-dose for liquid laundry detergents by 25 percent.
Another remarkable unveiling at the Expo was of a “groundbreaking” new recycling initiative called the Closed Loop Fund. Motivated by stagnate recycling rates and concerns over supply shortages, Walmart, the Walmart Foundation and many of the companies at the Expo have put together a $100 million bankroll to provide zero-interest loans to municipalities that invest in recycling infrastructure and to invest in private companies working on waste reduction and recycling. Just two weeks after the Expo, New York City’s recycling czar and co-founder of Recyclebank Ron Gonen announced he was leaving his position to serve as CEO of the Closed Loop Fund.
And that’s not all. Noting that 96 percent of their customers say they have purchased sustainable products during the past year, Walmart announced plans to launch a sustainability store on walmart.com by the end of 2014.
Beyond the Expo, Walmart recently reported a new partnership with Wild Oats and their plans to offer a range of organic pantry staples at prices much lower than nationally branded organic foods. Walmart cited a study in which a remarkable 91 percent of their shoppers said they would buy organic products if they were more affordable.
None of these developments mark a sudden shift in sensitivities at Walmart. It has had sustainability and renewable energy programs in place for nearly 10 years, and it leverages a range of solar, wind and fuel cell projects to support its commitment to driving the production or procurement of 7 billion KWh of renewable energy globally by 2020 – and they’re currently 32 percent of the way there. In fact, it is the number-one commercial user of solar energy and the largest user of on-site renewable energy in the U.S.
So is Walmart an evil empire? Some will likely never be convinced otherwise, but we know that effectively communicating a dedication to renewable energy, supply chain innovation, and sustainability can do a lot to reposition a brand in the minds of many.
Shelton’s 2013 Eco Pulse study showed that 48 percent of respondents said that a company’s environmental reputation impacts their purchase decision. In Walmart’s case, however, it could turn the disdain of some consumers into a “maybe it’s not so bad” mindset, and by virtue of providing a broader selection of organic and sustainable products, the company might even convert some of the current naysayers into a new breed of more affluent, more concerned Walmart shoppers.
Walmart sign image by Mike Mozart via Flickr