Hunting for environmental hotspots in Walmart products

At Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), our work with Walmart focuses on leveraging the company’s buying power to reduce the environmental impacts of consumer goods. One of the clearest points of leverage is Walmart’s own store brands—Great Value, Sam’s Choice, Equate, and others that account for a sizable and growing percentage of the company’s sales. An internal team in Bentonville, where Walmart is headquartered – is responsible for designing private brand products, making sourcing decisions, and overall wielding substantial control over products from manufacture to the retail shelf.

In recent months, EDF has been working with the Walmart team responsible for the food and consumables division of Private Brands—the grocery side of Walmart—to assess seven private label products.

Our goal was to understand the environmental and social impacts across the life cycle of the following products:

  • Sour cream
  • Dish soap
  • Canned tomato sauce
  • Cereal
  • Sliced turkey breast
  • Chocolate syrup
  • Cashews

We worked with select product suppliers to collect information on manufacturing inputs (ingredients, energy, packaging, etc.) and outputs (trash, waste, water, etc.). We then used life cycle assessment, or LCA, tools to assess “hotspots” —the areas of most significant impacts–in each product from start to finish.

Some findings were surprising. For canned tomato sauce, our analysis showed that the steel can is a source of greater impact than the tomato sauce itself. In most of the products we studied (albeit only seven of the thousands that Walmart sells), the largest sources of environmental and social concern are “upstream,” meaning the agricultural or industrial production of ingredients and not the energy, water, etc. used to manufacture the final product.

Thus, to change a product’s footprint, Walmart's biggest opportunity may be to influence the product’s supply chain—the factories and farms that supply product suppliers, in some cases several levels back. For some products, the easiest option may be a preferable substitute—recycled instead of virgin paper. But for others, where ingredient substitution is impossible (the turkey in sliced turkey, or the milk in sour cream), the supply chain becomes the target of change. And this requires collaboration with other players instead of Walmart acting alone.

This summer, two exceptional EDF graduate interns, along with Walmart and some product suppliers, are exploring other options for understanding upstream impacts and initiating needed improvements.  LCAs are informative but very time consuming, and the underlying models and datasets are far from perfect.  As an alternative, we’re exploring simple transparency.  In these pilots, we’re looking at who supplies whom during each step of the process – from the farm to the store. What gets supplied when? From where and with what environmental inputs (e.g. energy, water, etc.)? How hard is it to gather this type of data, and how meaningful is the information?

Ideally, we hope to gain valuable insights into environmental hotspots and opportunities to drive improvement. At the very least, we’d like to get people throughout supply chains to start asking the right questions about inputs and options of themselves and their respective suppliers. It’s shaping up to be an interesting summer. Stay tuned to see how it all turns out.

This content is cross-posted on Greenbiz.com.