Exclusive: Wal-Mart’s sustainability index

Wal-Mart will make a big announcement this week: The company, working with consumer-goods manufacturers and a group of universities, will unveil plans to measure the sustainability of every product it sells. In time, sustainability labels could provide us with information about the environmental and social attributes of consumer goods, much as nutrition labels tell us about the content of the foods we eat.

Nutrition Facts Label

I’ve been hearing about Wal-Mart’s sustainability index for about a year, but the company has been reluctant to discuss it. (Uncharacteristically so, in my experience.) Wal-Mart’s new CEO, Mike Duke, will announce the index on Thursday, July 16, at the company’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, before invited suppliers, environmentalists and academics. I’ve been able to piece together the story by talking to Wal-Mart insiders, academics who are working with the company and environmentalists. The Big Money, Slate’s business site, has just published the story  here.

Here’s how the story begins:

PepsiCo buys lots of renewable energy, while a Coca Cola plant recycles plastic bottles. Should environmentalists drink Pepsi or Coke?

Dell is “carbon neutral.” Hewlett Packard says it designs for the environment. Whose laptops are more “green”?

So many choices, so little reliable guidance: Clorox GreenWorks or Seventh Generation? Local or organic strawberries? Paper or plastic? Who’s to say?

Wal-Mart, that’s who. [click to continue…]

Wal-Mart’s sustainability czar

I continue to be impressed by the scope and seriousness of the sustainability work being done at Wal-Mart. The company is reaching deep into its supply chain to try to wring out waste and develop “greener” products. They’re planning a major push around environmental and social issues this fall in China. All important, interesting stuff.

Last week, I interviewed Matt Kistler, WMT’s senior v.p. for sustainability, at the inaugural Greener by Design conference. He’s an affable guy with a real passion for environmental issues. I’m joking, though, when I call him the “sustainability czar”—it’s just the opposite. WMT is driving better practices in the company through “sustainability networks” that are organized around products and themes. There are networks for the food, apparel, jewelry, packaging, buildings, the fleet, China and the like. Each one is led by a WMT employee (who still must do his or her “real” full-time job) and it draws upon a network of suppliers and NGOs who “volunteer” their time. When it works, this model extracts the best thinking from people who care about the issue and, at the same time, embeds greener practices deep into WMT rather than in a centralized corporate-reponsibility or environmental office. Critics say it amounts to low-cost outsourcing, and that some networks haven’t accomplish much.

I wrote about Kistler’s work in today’s Sustainability column for cnnmoney.com and fortune.com. Here’s how it begins:

Get ready to pour your milk out of a square jug.

Sam’s Club, a unit of Wal-Mart Stores, sells gallons of milks in square containers in some stores. They come that way so shippers can stack more gallons into a truck, saving money, fuel and greenhouse gases. It turns out that the square milk jugs are easier and quicker to ship, therefore fresher when they hit the shelf.

And so – like concentrated laundry detergent, environmentally-friendly cleaning products and compact fluorescent light bulbs, all of which are being pushed by Wal-Mart – square milk jugs are likely to find their way into tens of millions of American homes.

“We’re looking everywhere we can to save energy and eliminate waste,” says Matt Kistler, the giant retailer’s senior vice president for sustainability.

Yes, I’m well aware that WMT’s big-box, import-dependent business model is far, far from sustainable. (So are the people inside WMT. They’re not dumb.) But there’s just no doubt that the company is moving in the right direction. You can read the rest here.