Walmart’s index: This is big. Really big.

A Walmart with LED lights
A Walmart with LED lights

This is the first of three stories about Walmart’s supplier sustainability index.

Since launching its sustainability program in 2006, Walmart has reduced energy consumption in its stores, installed solar panels on its rooftops, curbed emissions from its trucks and recyled millions of tons of its trash. Now that the world’s biggest retailer has streamlined its own operations, it is turning its attention elsewhere–actually, almost everywhere.

Since last fall, Walmart has rolled out what it calls a supplier sustainability index to thousands of suppliers, asking them pointed questions about their operations and prodding them to better understand and manage their own supply chains.

It’s Walmart’s most ambitious environmental project ever, and if all goes according to plan, it will change the way all kinds of consumer products–clothes, toys, electronics, food and beverages–are made. The typical Walmart stocks 125,000 to 150,000 products (!), and the envirommental and social performance of most of the companies that make them them will soon be rated and ranked in Bentonville.

So Walmart is asking lots of questions of its suppliers. Among them:

How can wheat be grown with less water and fertilizer? How can chemicals of concern be removed from toys? What mining practices were used to extract copper, gold and silver for computers or jewelry? What percentage of your televisions sold last year were Energy Star certified? Do the grapes in a bottle of wine come from a farm with a biodiversity management plan? How much water was needed to produce those polyester pants?

If this sounds like a massive and fiendishly complicated undertaking, well, it is. It has been in the works since 2009, when Walmart unveiled The Sustainability Consortium, a nonprofit coalition led by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University that was set up to provide scientific research to undergird the effort. Since then, a few other retailers (Tesco, Kroger, Ahold, Best Buy) and dozens of consumer products brands (Coca-Cola, Disney, Kellogg’s, Mars) have signed on to the consortium. [click to continue…]

A puzzling list of sustainable companies

Canada's oil sands: Sustainable?
Canada’s oil sands: Sustainable?

Here comes a new list of the “most sustainable corporations in the world,” and it’s a doozy.

Two of the top five companies on the 2013 Global 100 list are oil and gas companies:

3. Norway’s Statoil ASA

4. Finland’s Neste Oil.

Read farther down and you find:

No. 81. Suncor Energy,

which was the first company to develop Canada’s oil sands, source of some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet.

A notch below is:

No. 82. Unilever

the consumer products giant whose sustainable living plan embodies the broadest and deepest commitment to corporate responsibility of any big, global company.

This is….er….puzzling.

So what’s going here? And what does this tell us about corporate sustainability rankings and their meaning, a topic that never seems to go away? [See my blogpost Corporate sustainability: Who’s up, who’s down, who cares?] [click to continue…]

Campbell’s Doug Conant: “How can I help?”

Douglas Conant

Ten years into his career in the food industry, Douglas Conant was fired from his job at General Mills. He had two small children, a big mortgage, and a feeling of bitterness. Then he called an outplacement firm where the man on the other end of the line answered as he always did: “Hi, it’s Neil McKenna. How can I help?”

That moment–in a new book, Conant describes it as a “touchpoint”–shaped his approach to leadership. “Leadership isn’t about you,” he says. “It’s about them.” McKenna became a mentor and friend, and Conant saw how seemingly small interactions can have a deep impact on people. He went only to a long career at Kraft, Nabisco and as CEO of Campbell Soup, where he led an impressive turnaround before retiring in July.

I met Conant this week in Washington to talk about his 10 years at Campbell and about the book. In Touchpoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments (Jossey-Bass), Conant and his co-author, consultant Mette Norgaard, argue that “the daily interruptions that leaders face in nearly epidemic proportions are actually the moments where the greatest leadership opportunities lie.”

They write:

Each of the many connections you make has the potential to become a high point or low point in someone’s day. Each is an opportunity to establish high performance expectations, to infuse the agenda with greater clarity and more energy, and to influence the course of events. Each is a chance to transform an ordinary moment into a Touchpoint.

“The soft stuff is the hard stuff,” Conant likes to say. [click to continue…]

Mmm…mmm…who’s to blame for obesity?

My mornings often begin with a run along the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., and a visit to Quartermaine’s, a neighborhood hangout where the coffee’s great, the baristas are friendly and the pastries are tempting. Often, I yield to temptation. If Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest had his way, they’d serve nothing but oatmeal with skim milk, no salt.

Last week, Jacobson assailed the Campbell Soup Co. after its new CEO, Denise Morrison, told investment analysts that the company “plans to bring back some higher-sodium soups after several years of working to reduce sodium, sometimes at the expense of taste,” according to the AP. Sales of the low-sodium soup were disappointing.

Jacobson wrote:

If Campbell has reason to believe consumers don’t like the taste of their products, why resort to salt? Why not improve their soups with more and better-quality vegetables and chicken, or with herbs and spices? I suppose that’s a question that answers itself, and the answer is money. Campbell enjoys a huge profit margin selling what are often basically overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.

Yikes! This “public interest” advocate doesn’t think much of the public, does he, since, in his view, they are wasting their money on “overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.”

His blast made news, as CSPI often does. More than 300 stories, according to Google News, like this one from ABC News.

So what’s wrong with this picture? A couple of things.

First, it reflects an unfortunate blurring of the lines between “corporate responsibility” and personal responsibility. Is Quartermaine’s responsible for my pastry consumption? Should Campbell limit its offerings to low-sodium soups if consumers don’t want them? What about Ben & Jerry’s? This isn’t to suggest that corporations don’t bear some responsibility for the obesity crisis–they do, as I’ll explain below–but as a society, we’ll never get people to take responsibility for their own health and well-being if we point the finger at others.

Second, it misunderstands the power of business. Assume Campbell decided to sell only low-sodium soups. (No more Chicken Noodle, with its whopping 890mg per serving. The FDA currently recommends no more than 2,300 mg — roughly a teaspoon — of salt per day.) Shoppers would simply turn to other brands–or buy a frozen pizza instead.

[click to continue…]