In an article posted online this week, Mother Jones magazine makes a sweeping critique of Walmart’s efforts to reduce the environmental impacts created by its Chinese supply chain. Having been closely involved with Walmart on these and other sustainability initiatives since 2005, we’d like to offer EDF’s perspective on the story, and on what’s at stake in terms of both risk and opportunity.
The sheer scale of Walmart’s business – not to mention its influence on broader markets – means even small improvements in energy and water use, emissions and other metrics translate into major environmental benefits. And big steps can change the game entirely. All of that is doubly true when we are talking about its massive footprint in China’s industrial base.
A big part of learning how to make change work is learning what doesn’t work. There are fits and starts in any major initiative, and we would be worried if we weren’t hitting a few dead ends, because that would mean we aren’t being creative or ambitious enough in our thinking.
For example, it is true that some of the energy efficiency projects with Walmart suppliers discussed in the article did not pan out as we had initially hoped. We also believe that Walmart made some missteps like not dedicating consistent resources to the effort, and moving slowly to adopt robust accounting and auditing procedures.
Nevertheless, we continue to believe strongly that Walmart is serious about its sustainability agenda. And for EDF, working with Walmart remains a huge leverage point for making change throughout the global economy.
Yes, Walmart can do more — and more they ultimately must do if they are going to succeed. And sure, there have been many times we wanted it all to move faster. But none of that changes the impact that the company’s engagement on sustainability issues has had and could continue to have.
Even in China, where it has been a bumpy road, EDF has taken lessons from Walmart’s experience and used it to launch a new program aimed at aggregating and financing energy efficiency upgrades across a range of factories in the retail supply chain.
We think the story of Walmart’s sustainability work will evolve further this year, as the company’s two-year investment in product lifecycle analyses and carbon reporting tools start playing an increasingly important role in supplier relationships and product design.
None of this is simple or easy. Integrating sustainability in an enterprise like Walmart is a multi-pronged, multi-year effort stretching well beyond its own four walls. And because the going can be hard, it is great to know that the media are watching and helping to keep Walmart and other companies that are at the forefront on their toes.
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) does not accept payment or donations from Walmart or any of our other corporate partners. See our corporate donation policy.