Mothers and CEOs: Why Corporate Sustainability Reports Matter

Walmart has just released its report on Corporate Sustainability—the “Global Responsibility Report”.

Nicknamed the GRR, the joke around my office is that “GRR” sounds like a growl—GRRRR. But while its seventy-three dense pages might seem daunting, the GRR is anything but scary. In fact, from my perspective as both a mother and someone with unique access to the day-to-day workings of Walmart, I have to say that it’s a must-read.

Why? Because like all corporate sustainability reports, the GRR tells the story of how big business is—or is not—adjusting their operations to help the planet and its inhabitants.

And by inhabitants I mean you. And me. All of us.

Meet Super-Eco-Business-Mom When new mom JENNY AHLEN feeds her daughter, she may also be pondering this question: how do we feed a global population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050? That’s because Jenny is also EDF’s team lead for their partnership with Walmart, which gives her both a unique perspective and a unique power. She knows the stakes are high for the world her daughter will grow up in. But Jenny is in a position to do something about it. Thus, she spends her days working with the world’s largest retailer trying to figure out the best approach to “fertilizer optimization”: the science behind increasing yields while reducing the environmental impacts of crop production. How did Jenny arrive at this nexus of the nursery and contemporary eco-business?

To all the mothers of the world: like you, I want the best for my child. While there are many things we can’t control about our kids’ world, we do have power over things like what goes in and on their bodies, which toys can help them learn, and how to create a safe and loving environment for them to grow. Knowing what’s in these sustainability reports means knowing whether the stores and brands we choose every day are working with us, or making our job harder.

To all the C-suite executives: See above. Mothers everywhere are starting to demand both transparency and action around creating a healthier world for our kids. We are your customers, and we’re sending you a demand signal to make us happy.  Coincidentally, it can make your business more efficient, more profitable and more resilient—all things that your shareholders will love to hear. Believe me, you want to be able to issue a sustainability report that’s both real and robust.

So if the GRR is Walmart’s report card on global responsibility, how did they do?

There’s a lot in the document, but after a quick scan of the sections that fall within my area of expertise, I’d have to say: they’re making a lot of progress—probably more than most of their peers.  Two areas that stand out are:

  1. Climate Change:
  • In their direct operations, Walmart reports that their U.S. truck fleet efficiency has doubled since 2005, eliminating 650,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases since 2015. Those numbers are impressive.
  • Outside of their own operations, it’s now fairly well known that six years ago Walmart set a goal of removing 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from their supply chain. They not only achieved but surpassed that goal—36.5 million metric tons have been removed to date. That’s the equivalent of over 39 billion pounds of coal left unburned, and that is amazing. It proves that setting audacious goals can deliver real results.
  1. Transparency and Quality of Products:
  • In 2013, Walmart committed to “reduce, restrict and remove use of high-priority chemicals using informed substitution principles”. The GRR reports that they’ve achieved a “95% reduction by weight in Walmart U.S.”. Translating that into plain English, that means a lot of things you didn’t want to be in your products have been taken out. This is a big deal—and the first time that a major retailer has attempted something so daunting.

With each of these accomplishments come questions—and a realization that significant work remains.  Those fleet numbers, for example, are focused only on the trucks they own. As the mix of online versus bricks-and-mortar shopping continues to evolve, is enough being done throughout their entire transportation system to optimize efficiency?

And in terms of the chemicals: how did they arrive at that number, and where are the names of the offending chemicals? My inside sources expect that both will be released soon—to which I say “we expect nothing less”. Like any parent, I won’t think enough has been done on this issue until I can buy any product on the shelf and not worry that it could have an adverse effect on my child. When will that day come?

In any case, the few examples I’ve cited are just the tip of the GRR iceberg.  I encourage you to find yourself a comfy chair, settle in, and explore it for yourself.

But as you read, try to remember that, just as no parent is perfect, neither is any one company. My takeaway is that Walmart is sincere in its efforts to tackle the extremely complicated job of helping to make the world a better place for our children. And their approach—employing science-based processes that are scalable and focused on areas core to their business—is precisely why Walmart can lay claim to being a leader in their field.

Mothers and CEOs, take note.

Follow Jenny Ahlen on Twitter – @JennyKAhlen



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