Business is the New Environmentalist

I just returned from Walmart’s first Sustainable Products Expo, where thousands of suppliers gathered to talk about sustainability, show off their products and make commitments for action. There’s a new energy behind sustainability thanks to Walmart’s increasing efforts over the past ten years and their dynamic new CEO, Doug McMillon.

Elizabeth Sturcken

Elizabeth Sturcken addressing the crowd at the Walmart Sustainable Products Expo

Environmental Defense Fund has been there every step of the way, pushing Walmart hard to set and follow through on aggressive yet achievable goals that can drive the kind of change that only a company that has over 100,000 global suppliers and 250 million customers a week can.

Strong Goals:  A Powerful Driver of Action

After 25 years of working with business, we know that setting goals matters in making real and lasting change.

This week’s Expo is a great example: we worked with Walmart for years to set and announce their groundbreaking goal of reducing 20 million metric tons (MT) of greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain. And on stage with them this week, we saw leading brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg’s and General Mills stepping forward and committing to action on fertilizer and recycling — two of the biggest areas of opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Walmart’s supply chain — directly as a result of that 20 million MT goal.

Walmart and their suppliers are seeing opportunities to make improvements not because they’re required to do so, but because it’s just good business.

Closing the Loop on Recycling

9 companies came together with the Walmart Foundation to start The Closed Loop Fund, a $100 million initiative to help communities finance recycling infrastructure projects. Their goal is to ensure that 100 percent of U.S. consumers have access to recycling.

These companies — Walmart and the Walmart Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc., PepsiCo and the PepsiCo Foundation, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson and Unilever — have been facing a big hurdle in including more postconsumer recycled content in their products: recycling rates are stagnant and they can’t get enough materials from recycling streams to meet their goals. The Fund is part of Walmart’s holistic strategy to ask suppliers to include more postconsumer recycled content in their packaging while moving away from materials that are problematic for recycling.

Right-Sizing Fertilizer Use

From the same stage, six more companies’ CEOs — Campbell Soup Company, Monsanto, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), General Mills, Kellogg Company and PepsiCo, plus Cargill’s chairman of the board — committed to make their agricultural operations more sustainable, with goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fertilizer and water use. For many of them, this was in addition to work that they’ve already launched with Walmart to optimize fertilizer use in its supply chain. If fully implemented, this could result in greenhouse gas reductions of 7 million metric tons, reduce fertilizer runoff and help farmers cut costs.

The specific commitments each company made range from reducing the amount of GHG emissions and water used per ton of food produced (Campbells) to increasing farmers’ utilization of sustainable farming practices (Cargill, DFA, General Mills, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo).

What Really Matters:  Getting It Done

The work that Walmart and its suppliers is doing, catalyzed by the 20MMT goal, is not easy — it’s rooted in the notion that to get the kind of environmental results needed to address an issue like climate change, you need a systems approach and you need to work with suppliers. Even the world’s largest company working alone is not enough.

This week Walmart used its clout to bring together leading companies and give them a platform from which to make their commitment. Together, these companies represent more than a trillion dollars in total revenue. That’s a lot of power in the marketplace being leveraged for sustainability goals. Of course, in the end we’ll judge them all by  results— significant, measurable and transparent impacts of their efforts — and we expect Walmart to help hold them accountable for this progress.