Consumers Get Their Say in Supporting Sustainable Products

Like teenagers, all ground-breaking products or ideas go through an awkward adolescent phase.  And, like teenagers, the only way products or ideas can move past the clumsy stage and blossom into a sought after, form-meets-function icon is through experience.  Meaning, real consumers have to put them through their paces: does this work? How could it work better? Revise, improve, re-test, repeat… that’s how you make something truly effective; truly great.

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All this is by way of acknowledging a group of sustainable-minded collaborators on the coming-out party this week for Walmart’s “Sustainability Leaders Shop”, an online shopping portal that “will allow customers to easily identify brands that are leading sustainability within a special category”.  It is, literally, the very first time a quantifiable, science-based index of various products’ sustainable provenance is being placed in the hands of consumers at the scale that only Walmart can provide.

EDF is, in some ways, a proud parent of this teenager. As an environmental group that has been working with companies for the past 25 years, we’ve walked beside Walmart on the journey to try and create better consumer products and a better world. EDF shepherded Walmart in setting an aggressive goal of reducing 20 MMT of GHG emissions from its supply chain, and we are working with them on removing chemicals of concern from everyday products, and also in sending the demand signal for optimized fertilizer use and sustainably sourced products across its supply chain. EDF has also been working for years with The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) – which provides the scientific engine behind Walmart’s Sustainability Leaders Shop. The TSC’s tools identify “hot spots” in consumer product categories.  Walmart then takes that information, and surveys and scores their suppliers’ performance through the Sustainability Index .

A lot has gone into getting us to where we are today:  years toiling away to figure out how to accurately measure product sustainability and how to make that transparent in an easily understandable way to busy consumers. For that, Walmart and its collaborators—The Sustainability Consortium and the leading group of suppliers that have been working to improve the sustainability of products — are to be congratulated. The Sustainability Leader’s Shop is a very big, very important first step because it invites consumers into the conversation.

The first step involves boldly stepping out there, not getting everything perfect, and even stumbling at times.  But that’s what’s necessary to grow.  For example, the Sustainability Leaders Shop currently designates leaders at a supplier level instead of an individual product level, which would be more ideal but simply not realistic for millions of products.  It’s also worth noting that the TSC questions used to survey suppliers about their products and performance are constantly improving to be more quantitative and usable by companies, so the sustainability ratings will change over time as these questions improve, not just as the performance itself improves.  And the data used to assess products is self-reported by companies.  Right now the Sustainability Leaders Shop is only on, which does not include all products, such as fresh food.  For consumers who expect “omni-channel retail” where they can get their products and information about them through many options, we think the Sustainability Leaders Shop needs to appear in real stores, too.

We’ve realized for a while that what’s good for business is good for the planet.  We won’t get to the place we need to be – we can’t help the teenager through to adulthood – without consumers, suppliers, environmentalists and retailers all working together to create greener consumer products. That’s why it is an invaluable opportunity and an imperative for consumers to get engaged and motivate all suppliers to act:  Vote with your wallets and reward companies who are leading on sustainability at the Sustainability Leaders Shop.

ElizabethSturcken-(2)_287x377Elizabeth Sturcken is Managing Director of EDF’s Supply Chain work and is a current board member of The Sustainability Consortium.


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