Harvesting a Sustainable Future? Walmart's new food sourcing commitment

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is also the world’s largest grocer. When the world’s largest grocer announces that it is going to change the way that it sources the food it sells, it’s a big deal.

At least it could be. Time and implementation strategies will tell.

But I think things are starting in a good direction.  The Walmart sustainability team members responsible for developing the new agriculture platform spent more than a year conferring with Walmart sustainability teams based in other countries, with NGO sustainability partners such as Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and with other organizations and academicians specializing in sustainable agriculture. By the time of the announcement on October 14, 2010, Walmart had done the due diligence to arrive at a strong set of initial goals to be achieved by 2015.

That’s a significant step in the evolution of Walmart’s sustainability journey. Early targets tended to focus on percentage reductions, even when baselines were not known and the true reductions were difficult if not impossible to track. It’s good to see Walmart taking a more thoughtful approach to sustainability goal setting.

EDF’s interest in agriculture relates to the overuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in the US that results in both water- and air-borne pollution. For the first time Walmart will ask suppliers about the water, energy, fertilizer and pesticide used per unit of food produced. To identify opportunities for optimal on-farm practice, you have to start with supply chain transparency and knowledge of inputs. EDF’s goal is to help Walmart use this information to drive needed US reductions in water, energy-intensive fertilizers, and toxic pesticides. Over time, this can help ensure that more sustainably-produced food is going to consumers.

Walmart is also committed to further reductions in food waste, including investment in cold infrastructure to better move food from farm to fork. Again, reductions in waste mean reductions in wasted inputs.

A year ago, EDF interns in Bentonville raised the red flag on palm oil in Walmart’s private brand products. By the end of 2015, Walmart will require sustainably sourced palm oil for all Walmart private brand products globally. Walmart has the scale to drive the market toward sustainable palm oil, and private brands is a great place to draw the line in the sand. In addition, Walmart plans to expand the already existing practice of Walmart Brazil of only sourcing beef that does not contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest to all of Walmart companies worldwide. Currently, it is estimated that 60 percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is related to cattle ranching expansion.

Walmart also has several goals pertaining to farmers. In the US and elsewhere, education and training, access to markets, and more profit in the farmer’s pocket are considered key to sustaining small and medium size agricultural enterprises. Coupled with transparency into on-farm practices, this can pave the way for driving needed environmental improvements.

Walmart CEO Mike Duke said, “Through sustainable agriculture, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a positive difference in food production – for farmers, communities and customers. Our efforts will help increase farmer incomes, lead to more efficient use of pesticides, fertilizer and water, and provide fresher produce for our customers.”

I agree that Walmart is uniquely positioned to make this work, and EDF’s experience with Walmart over the last five years leads me to believe that this can be, as they say in Bentonville, a “game changer.” EDF will certainly be among those working alongside Walmart to leverage this commitment and reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment.

These are five year goals for a reason. The issues are big and complex, the current systems are entrenched, and the myriad players involved practically guarantee that unexpected challenges will arise. That will make it that much harder to capture the potential inherent in these goals.

As I heard yesterday, “Metrics are the conscience of good intentions.” There’s a lot of measuring needed. And turning knowledge about farm practices into needed behavior change among farmers has never been simple or easy.

But then, that’s why I like partnering with Walmart – it never gets dull.

For more information on our work with Walmart, visit edf.org/walmart.