Can We Trust Walmart’s Sustainability Claims?

BY ON January 3, 2017

walmart

This was written by Jenny Ahlen for EDF+Business:

There’s been a lot of talk about “trust” in the media lately. In case you missed it, Walmart announced its 2025 goals just a few days before the election, as part of what Walmart CEO Doug McMillon characterized as a “new era of trust and transparency for customers and communities.”

I’m going to do us all a favor and not re-visit politicians’ pleas for trust. But Walmart’s desire to become “the most trusted retailer” makes me simultaneously wary and hopeful.

My wariness comes from the fact that we’ve heard plenty of companies talk about trust—especially as it relates to how much trust their customers have in them. And it’s no surprise why: trust is a key driver in customer loyalty and therefore repeat shopping trips and sales. So my cynical self keeps tip-toeing in and setting off the “empty sales pitch alert”, as in: if you have to say you’re trustworthy, you’re probably not.

But, having spent the last five years working side-by-side with Walmart to help them reach their 2015 sustainability goals, I’m hopeful. We all learned a lot in the process of using science to set goals, track progress and actually deliver measurable results… and I’m confident that Walmart can be even more successful this round.

Which is good: many of the 2025 goals—like making more packaging recyclable, reducing harmful ingredients in food and improving working conditions of their employees—matter, a lot. And achieving these goals should engender trust in Walmart: these issues touch consumers directly, and are quickly becoming part of mainstream thinking shared by other retailers and food companies (see the Wall Street Journal’s recent Global Food Forum).

But there’s another dimension to the 2025 goals that gives me even greater hope.

What Walmart—and other companies—are starting to realize is that other, less tangible issues also matter. Real leadership means addressing all the major sustainability issues of our time—then helping their customers to come along with them.

Take climate change, for example: past shopper surveys asking mothers to rank areas of “concern” for their families have probably seen food safety scoring much higher on the list than the climate. But if the question were rephrased to ask “are the direct impacts of climate change (like more frequent severe weather) a concern for you and your family?” I’m willing to bet the survey results would be a lot closer.

That’s why it’s so exciting to see Walmart’s other 2025 goals, where they will strive to achieve:

  • 50% renewable energy to power their operations
  • 18% absolute emissions reduction in their operations
  • Zero waste to landfill
  • Zero net deforestation in key commodities, such as palm oil and beef
  • 100% recyclable packaging in private brands
  • 1 Gigaton emissions reduction across their supply chain

While all of these goals are both laudable and ambitious, this last one—eliminating 1 Gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions—is an industry game-changer.  That’s the equivalent of removing 211 million cars from our roads…and is greater than the annual amount of GHGs emitted by the country of Germany.

And the even better news: Walmart’s not alone. Recent commitments by other companies like General Mills, Kellogg and Pepsi, shows that setting ambitious, science-based climate targets is now officially a trend. Achieving goals like these won’t be immediately seen, felt or touched by their customers—yet these companies are choosing to tackle them anyway.

That’s true leadership.

That’s saying to all of us, “We’ve got the power, scale and leverage to change the world, and we’re going to do it.”

That’s the way to engender real trust.

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jenny ahlen

TOPICS: Climate Change, Toxics