Friday, October 9, 2009

The Future of Sustainable Shopping: Wal-Mart?

You may have heard some noise being made about the Wal-Mart Sustainability Index--if you haven't, it's an initiative that will eventually rank every product on the retail giants' shelves so every customer will know exactly how sustainably it was produced. So how is this going to affect shoppers--and does it mean you can feel good about heading to WalMart again?

First of all, let me briefly explain how the Index will work.

First, the program will require every single company that sells products to Wal-Mart to disclose its carbon footprint. Each of these suppliers (big guns like Hasbro and Ocean Spray) will have to reveal how sustainable they are in four areas: energy and climate, natural resources, material efficiency, and people and community. To do this, they have to fill out a 15 question assessment detailing their practices.

Then, Wal-Mart will gather an independent group of scientists, academics, and consultants to analyze the responses. Finally, the findings will be revealed to the public in a yet-to-be-determined ranking system that will be displayed on each product it carries.

So in the not-so-distant future, every shopper will be able to see how green each company is--potentially impacting people's buying decisions. In theory, this means that you'll be able to stroll down the aisle at Wal Mart, pick up a toy or sweater or whatever, and be able to compare how sustainably it was produced to its competitors.
Changing Shopping for the Greener

And this could actually have a tremendous impact on the environmental practices of companies--say you pick up a toy from Hasbro, and because it buys some its electricity from renewable sources, and has cut down on packaging, it has a 7.5/10 on the Sustainability-O-Meter (they haven't figured out their system yet, but you can be pretty certain it won't be called that, but let's call it that for now, just for fun).

Then you pick up a similar toy from Corporation X, and it has a Sustainability-O-Meter ranking of 2.0/10 because its products create a lot of waste, and ships its goods inefficiently. You make a simple, quick decision, and you might feel better about buying the Hasbro toy. This happens in stores around the world, and Hasbro is rewarded for having good, sustainable practices. Corporation X loses out, and rushes to become a greener company.

Business around the world are already scrambling to hire environmental consultants to help improve their operations--the Index could also help create a slew of green jobs this way.

In theory, it's a great idea. In practice, we'll have to see how transparent the assessment process is, and whether the Index will really force companies to make serious changes. If not, we might have to brace ourselves for greenwashing on a scale like we've never seen before. But I do have to give my reluctant kudos to Wal Mart for at least advancing this idea--it's such a major player in global business that it really does have an opportunity to change the world for the greener.

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