Big Goals Drive Big Innovation

In 2010, several years after Walmart and EDF began their partnership, a couple of things were troubling the EDF team: Walmart had mapped out some sustainability goals, but a) they lacked specificity,  and b) they didn’t directly address what was clearly becoming the central issue of the day: climate change.

Responding to EDF’s challenge to do better, the Walmart team began doing some “back of the napkin” sketches as to what a meaningful reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) would look like. Taking stock of their complete carbon footprint—not only in their own operations, but across their many thousands of suppliers—and figuring in rough predictions of their growth, the Walmart team announced a goal to reduce their GHG emissions by 20 million metric tons within five years.

It was, as EDF Managing Director Elizabeth Sturcken called it, a “big, hairy, audacious goal”. But setting a goal is easy. Now, how were they going to achieve it?

Even the EDF team wasn’t sure of the path forward. “Someone likened Walmart to a speeding train,” recalled Michelle Harvey, EDF’s Director of Supply Chains. “We figured we should just grab onto the train anywhere we could, and start moving towards the engine.”

So, working together, the tiny NGO team and the massive corporation started trying anything that, at least on paper, made sense. They re-labeled apparel to let customers know the clothing could be washed in cold water. They partnered with Unilever on a water-efficient spa shower head. They experimented with storing ice cream at higher temperatures and date-labeling eggs to reduce food waste.

While some of these projects were doomed to failure, some delivered results that, if not successes in their own right, contributed to the EDF/Walmart teams’ ever-expanding pool of knowledge and experience. In particular, they realized that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So they did a deep dive into researching where the top GHG ‘hot spots’ were for Walmart. The epiphany? 90 percent of Walmart’s emissions were hiding in plain site in their supply chain.

At every link in the supply chain, the EDF and Walmart teams found sustainability opportunities.

Walmart SC opportunities


Through this work, EDF and Walmart discovered five, key contributors to the company’s carbon footprint that would prove to be game-changers in terms of reaching the goal, including:

  • Fertilizer (nitrogen that feeds corn which, when used in excess, emits massive GHGs);
  • Factory energy efficiency, including those in China;
  • Recycled content, both in terms of product ingredients and packaging;
  • Food waste, the reduction of which not only reduces methane emissions from landfills, but reduces the amount of new food that needs to be grown;
  • Energy-efficient products sold for use within the home, such as LED lightbulbs; and
  • Recycled content, both in terms of product ingredients and packaging.

20MMT_Infogfx_Piechart_RV1The catalyst for these discoveries was the goal to reduce 20 MMT of GHG from Walmart’s supply chain and product life-cycles by the end of 2015. So how did we do? In the end, with EDF’s help, Walmart not only hit their goal, but surpassed it.

The moral of the story? Set (big, hairy) audacious goals, and innovation will follow.