On the road to solid sustainability reporting, Walmart gets one step closer

Last week as environmentalists across the country were getting excited for the 41st annual Earth Day, EDF’s Walmart team was eagerly anticipating another annual event – the release of Walmart’s 2011 Global Responsibility report.

This is Walmart’s fourth sustainability report, and our third year blogging about it, and we are pleased to see that this year’s report shows continued improvements in areas where we’ve been encouraging progress (e.g. transparency, setting meaningful goals, strong metrics).  It was inspiring to read Mike Duke’s introductory message and hear the boss himself emphasize that not only are transparency and accountability part of being a responsible company but they make Walmart “a better company” (his emphasis, not mine).

With the exception of a few projects and stories, there was consistent inclusion of significant metrics for its sustainability projects and goals.  As Walmart continues to move away from anecdotal stories to hard numbers and data, the reporting continues to become more and more meaningful.  We also applaud and appreciate the report’s candor when discussing areas where there is more work to do.  The inclusion of the “Challenges” breakout boxes nicely highlight areas where expectations and goals were not met and explains why.  While it’s not always easy to publicly recognize areas where you fall short, it is important for meaningful and transparent reporting to do so.

Looking forward to next year’s report, we would like to see Walmart consistently provide metrics that place its progress in perspective of its total impact in a given area. For example, it would be helpful to have some sense of progress on their goal towards being powered by 100% renewable energy. We would also like Walmart to ensure that clear baselines are consistently used.  For instance, its goal to reduce phosphates by 70% in laundry and dish detergents in the Americas is still undefined. There are numerous ways to measure a 70% reduction—by weight, by volume, per product, for the region. Clarity is important.

On goal setting, Walmart has continued to take aggressive goals over the last year.  Reading through this report, I was reminded not only of the scope and depth of the work (I counted 47 sustainability goals!), but also of the progress on numerous fronts.  Walmart’s innovative goal to drive GHG reductions from its products’ lifecycles and supply chain is moving forward and its recent goals on sustainable agriculture bring Walmart that much closer to a global sustainability program.  Unfortunately, it’s not all high fives on this front. We continue to be hopeful that Walmart will commit to meaningful goals regarding the chemicals of concern in its products.  Walmart has developed a powerful product screening tool for chemicals, GreenWERCS, and now is the time to make good use of it.  We were excited to see the newly announced pilot to train merchants (the people that select the products Walmart will sell) to utilize GreenWERCS data and output from  The Sustainability Consortium to assess how sustainability information can be integrated into core business decisions.  This is a good start.

When everything is said and done, Walmart has a lot to be proud of.  Over our six years of partnership, we’ve seen this company take a lead in corporate sustainability. With renewed focus and a continued companywide emphasis on the business value of sustainability, the 2012 report will show even further progress.  In fact, a renewed focus on sustainability from Walmart leadership is essential if Walmart is going to continue to help its customers “save money and live better”.