Walmart and Target, chemical cops

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Health care activists say some cosmetics made by Revlon contain cancer-causing chemicals

Cops of the global village.

That was the headline on a FORTUNE story about globalization that I wrote in 2005. I didn’t care for the headline, but it reflected one of the arguments in the story–that as US companies build global supply chains, they are exporting western health, safety and environmental standards to the global south. Governments in places like Bangladesh, India and China were doing a poor job of protecting the health, safety and human rights of  workers in garment, toy and electronics factories, so US and European brands stepped in. Companies were, in fact, acting like cops–writing laws (they called them codes of conduct) and inspecting factories to make sure they were obeyed. This system, well-intentioned as it was, has not worked very well, as we learned this year with the garment-factory disasters in Bangladesh.

Now something similar is happening right here in the US of A. Walmart and Target, the nation’s biggest and third-biggest retailer (Kroger is No. 2) have adopted policies to regulate so-called “chemicals of concern,” a term used to describe chemicals that are legal despite questions about their impact on human health. This week, Guardian Sustainable Business is running four stories that look at how and why retailers turn into regulators–an introduction by me, stories about Walmart and Target by freelance writer Bill Lascher and a contribution from John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation, which calls “itself the nation’s leading brand of household and personal care products that help protect human health and the environment.”

This is, to put it mildly, a big subject, and so I won’t attempt to summarize our coverage. To give you a sense of the complexity, here is how my story begins:

Last fall, Revlon took fire from activists who alleged that the company’s cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. “Women shouldn’t have to worry about cancer when they apply their makeup,” said Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet, a women’s group that joined forces with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to go after Revlon. “It’s deceptive to wrap yourself in pink and have these chemicals in your products.”

Revlon’s general counsel, Lauren Goldberg, shot back an indignant cease-and-desist letter, calling the charges “false and defamatory” and demanding a retraction. “Revlon has long been … at the forefront of the fight against cancer,” she wrote.

So which is it? Should women throw away their Revlon eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss? Or should they feel good about supporting a company that cares?

In a perfect world, the government would rely on sound science to regulate chemicals in personal and home care products, and consumers could safely assume that there’s no need to worry about the things they buy. No one would ever have to know about chemicals with odd-sounding names like phthalates1,4-dioxane, or triclosan – one of the chemicals that, just this week, the FDA stated it would require soap manufacturers to prove safe.

But in the real world, science can be messy and inconclusive; government regulators can be overwhelmed, indifferent or restricted by industry concerns; nonprofit groups can resort to scare tactics to attract attention or money; and manufacturers can be ignorant, careless or worse about the chemicals they put into their products. As a result of all of this, many everyday items – eyeliner and nail polish, baby bottles, household cleaners, children’s toys, even pizza boxes and antibacterial soaps – have been found, at one time or another, to contain chemicals that could make you sick.

What’s more, even as risks emerge, governments can be excruciatingly slow to respond: several European countries banned lead from interior paints in 1909 because they recognized that lead exposure can cause serious health problems in children, but the US didn’t outlaw lead house paint until the 1970s. Rich Food, Poor Food, a book written by Jayson and Mira Calton earlier this year, lists a number of foods that are banned outside of the US, but permitted within it.

All this helps explain why Walmart and Target are taking matters into their own hands.

Subsequently, Bill Lascher took a closer look–and a critical one–at the policies at both Walmart and Target. His Walmart story is headlined Walmart aims to reduce 10 toxic chemicals–but won’t divulge which and his Target story is headlined Target aims for healthier products under a veil of secrecy. As you see, one reason not to rely on retailers to become de facto regulators is that they have no obligation to explain what they are doing, or why.

I know we’ll try to keep an eye on this story as it unfolds at Guardian Sustainable Business, and we are planning a session on “chemicals of concern” at Fortune Brainstorm Green in May. If you work for a company that’s engaged in the issue, feel free to be in touch.

In a week or two, I’ll have more to say about the Fortune event. In just the past few days, we’ve booked some great speakers, and I’m excited about the program we are developing.

Sustainability at McDonald’s. Really.

coffee-cupHere’s a question. Which trio of companies has done more for the environment…

Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle?

Or Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s?

I don’t have an answer. Patagonia, Starbucks and Chipotle have been path-breaking companies when it comes to sustainability, but Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are so much bigger that, despite their glaring flaws, and the fundamental problems with their business models, they will have a greater impact as they get serious about curbing their environmental footprint, and that of their suppliers.

Small and mid-sized companies create sustainability solutions, as a rule, but the impact comes when big global corporations embrace them. Size matters.

All that is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about McDonald’s coffee-buying practices and the role of the consumer in driving them to scale.

Here’s how it begins:

Across the US, McDonald’s last week introduced pumpkin spice lattes made with Rainforest Alliance-certified espresso. No such assurance comes with McDonald’s drip coffee. Why? Because consumers haven’t yet shown Mickey D’s that they care.

That’s gradually changing, says Bob Langert, the vice president of sustainability for McDonald’s, and not a moment too soon. As the world’s biggest fast-food chain, which has 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, seeks to make its supply chain more environmentally friendly, McDonald’s is trying to enlist its customers as allies.

That’s why the pumpkin lattes marketing features the little green frog seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance. That’s also why McDonald’s fish sandwiches, for the first time, feature a blue ecolabel from the Marine Stewardship Council certifying that the pollock inside comes from better-managed fisheries.

By talking to consumers about its sustainability efforts, McDonald’s hopes to build brand trust and loyalty. Until recently, people had to dig into the company’s website to learn about its environmental performance.

“We’ve had sustainable fish for many years, but we didn’t tell people about it,” Langert told me during lunch in Washington DC. (He ordered fish.) “We feel there’s a tipping point coming. We see the consumer starting to care. Consumer expectations are rising.”

What McDonald’s is doing with its coffee isn’t innovative. Starbucks paved the way. But if McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Costco, Target and others follow, the world’s coffee farmers will be a lot better off.

Meantime, McDonald’s is leading the way as it encourages potato farmers to use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer, as the story goes on to say. And it could potentially have a huge impact as it tackles its most important supply chain–beef.

Elitists will scoff at everything McDonald’s does, of course, and some of their criticisms have merit. A Big Mac, it’s safe to assume, has a big carbon footprint. Eating too much food from Mickey D’s (or anywhere else) makes people fat. I’d like to see fast-food chains pay their workers better, even if that means customers will have to pay more for breakfast or lunch. But on the environment, McDonald’s is moving in the right direction. Just as important, the company is trying to move its customers along, too.

You can read the rest of my Guardian story here.

MillerCoors: A trickle-down theory of corporate sustainability

Beer-on-Bar-007Every big company understands that saving energy, water and raw materials in its own operations is good for business. You don’t need an MBA to grasp that efficiency reduces costs, which can lead to lower prices, gains in market share and higher profits.

Not as well understood are the opportunities that await companies that dig into their supply chains to drive efficiencies. If big companies can work with their suppliers to save energy, water and materials, everyone should gain, and we’ll waste fewer resources.

That’s the theme of my story today for Guardian Sustainable Business, about MillerCoors, water and barley farmers. It’s an example of what I’m calling the “trickle-down down theory of corporate sustainability.” By that I mean that  sustainability initiatives taken by the biggest companies trickle their way down into remote corners of the global economy.

Here’s how the story begins:

So you think you have a cool app on your smart phone? Meet Gary Beck, an Idaho barley farmer who, from the comfort of his living room couch, can control giant irrigation systems miles away, turning sprinklers on and off or adjusting their spray.

Every drop counts. “Right now, we’re in a huge drought,” Beck says. “Some of the old timers have never seen it this dry before.”

Beck manages a farm that grows about 2,500 acres of barley for MillerCoors, the US’s second-largest beer company (behind Anheuser-Busch InBev), with revenues of nearly $9bn last year. His thorough water-conservation efforts – including redesigning equipment, abandoning some fields and using more compost – have paid off big time, saving water, energy and money.

Even more notable, they have been guided – and partly financed – by his biggest customer, MillerCoors, with a nudge from its biggest customer, Walmart; by local utility Idaho Power, which wants to help its customers save energy; and by The Nature Conservancy, which owns the Silver Creek Preserve, a nearby high-desert fly-fishing destination that attracts an abundance of wildlife, including eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions – all of which, of course, need water.

It’s an example of how companies such as MillerCoors are reaching beyond their own boundaries to help solve environmental problems.

Note a few things about this story. First, although my focus is MillerCoors, you could easily argue that Walmart, with its supplier sustainability index, is equally responsible for the water-saving projects on barley farms. By asking aits suppliers–about 60,000, at last count–to track the lifecycle impacts of their products, Walmart forces them to think about where their environmental impacts are greatest, and urges them (to put it kindly) to make improvements.

Second, unlike Walmart, MillerCoors is getting its hands dirty and spending its own money as it works with suppliers. It’s investing in best practices on one barley farm, and helping to spread them. It’s the kind of thing Starbucks has done for years with its coffee farmers.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that the first (and, as of now, only) reader comment on this story says: “Adfomercial. Naughty Guardian.” This may be because SABMiller is a sponsor of the Guardian’s water coverage–a fact that I only learned when, to my dismay, the story was accompanied by a banner ad for SABMiller. All water-related stories on Guardian Sustainable Business, it turns out, run with a banner from SABMiller. You’ll have to trust me when I say I didn’t know that when I began to report this story.

But there’s a bigger issue here. My role, as I see it, isn’t to be a full-time corporate critic. Instead, I try to jeer companies when they screw up and cheer those that try to do the right thing. If I’m wrong about MillerCoors, by all means let me know. But I’d find it too depressing to spend all my time looking for bad news.

Seafood is having its Portlandia moment

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Cooking for Solutions is a delightful annual conference, fund-raiser and celebration of seafood sustainability produced every spring by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m just back from the 2013 event, and there is reason to feel good about the progress the seafood industry is making.

Consumers, chefs and, most importantly, major retailers in the US and Europe are more aware than ever that the choices we make about what kinds of fish to eat–and not to eat–have an impact on the health and sustainability of global fisheries.

The result is that, in the last decade or so, virtually every major retailer and food service company in the US and EU has adopted a seafood sustainability policy. Some are stronger than others, but the issue is on the agenda and not going away.

“Large corporations may very well turn out to be our angels of salvation,” said Matt Elliott, an oceans expert at California Environmental Associates, which last year published a landmark report on global fishing practices.

You could say that seafood is having its Portlandia moment. I’m referring, of course, to the hilarious scene on the cable TV show in which a couple interrogate a waitress about the chicken on the menu. (“How much room did the chicken have to roam?”) Chefs who gathered last week in Monterey told me that they are asked by diners if their salmon is wild or farm-raised, and whether their shrimp is local or imported from Asia.

By themselves, consumers can’t drive changes in fishing practices. But when consumers make themselves heard, and emerge as part of a larger ecosystem that includes activist NGOs such as Greenpeace, business-friendly environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, certifying bodies like the flawed but important Marine Stewardship Council and brands like Whole Foods Market and Darden, change happens. Regulation of the oceans–a public commons if ever there was one–is important, but markets, too, can drive sustainability. [click to continue...]

Walmart’s index: A real-life toy story

Is My Little Pony sustainable?

Is My Little Pony sustainable?

This is the third in a series of stories about Walmart’s supplier sustainability index. An overview is here, and a story about flour, bread and agriculture is here. Today’s topic: plastic toys and PVC.

Walmart wants to improve the sustainability of plastic toys. The giant retailer isn’t playing around.

The company wants to improve the safety of workers who make the toys. It wants to make sure that manufacturers are taking steps to use fewer so-called “chemicals of concern” in toys. It would like suppliers to deal with any issues raised when kids outgrow Barbie or GI Joe and throw them away. If paper or wood goes into toy packaging, Walmart wants to know whether it is “sourced in accordance with a credible certification system that addresses ecosystem impacts and biodiversity.”

Some critics think Walmart is taking this too far. That’s what this story is about.

Walmart’s supplier sustainability index, which is being rolled out to thousands of suppliers, is the biggest environmental initiative in the company’s history.  It will likely do enormous good–requiring companies that make consumer products to examine their environmental impacts in ways they have never done before. But the index also raises questions about how the world’s largest retailer (2012 revenues: $469 billion) is exercising its market power.

Is Barbie toxic?

Is Barbie toxic?

Consider, as an example, PVC, or polyvinyl chloride plastic, commonly known as vinyl. It’s a widely-used plastic, and it shows up in toys, including such iconic plastic toys as Hasbro’s My Little Pony and Mattel’s Barbie. It can be made soft or rigid, it’s rugged, moldable, low-cost and excellent at holding color.

What, if anything, is wrong with PVCs? That depends on who you ask. [click to continue...]

Walmart’s index: Better than sliced bread?

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This is the second in a series of three stories about Walmart’s supplier sustainability index. An overview of the index can be found here. 

Can Walmart change the way wheat is grown in America?

The company is trying to do just that. Here’s how.

Start inside a Walmart store in Laurel, Maryland. On sale here are nearly 40 brands of flour, many more varieties of  bread and countless other products made from wheat, including cookies, cakes, crackers andpancake mix.

In theory, Walmart has influence over every one of those products. The giant retailer (2012 revenues: $469 billion) sells more groceries than any other supermarket chain. Brands like Pepperidge Farm and Arnold and Sara Lee need access to its shelves.

To make agriculture more sustainable, Walmart has begun asking its suppliers probing questions about the grains they use. What percent of your grain is provided by suppliers that track fertilizer use and have goals and a program in place to optimize fertilizer use? What percent of your grain is provided by suppliers that monitor soil fertility and have goals and a program in place to minimize soil degradation and erosion? What about fuel use? What about water? What about pesticides? What about managing biodiversity?

Whew.

For the flour and bread makers, this is new territory.  Most never deal with the farmers who grow their wheat. They buy from middlemen.

“When you run into production agriculture, with thousands of growers, the product is commingled, it’s by definition a commodity,” says Fred Luckey, a retired Bunge executive who is now chairman of Field to Market, a nonprofit group that is working with Walmart.

Now they have to did deep into their supply chains, if they want to stay in the good graces of Bentonville. No company has ever tried anything like this before. [click to continue...]

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...]

Who’s responsible for factory conditions in poor countries? Has CSR gone too far?

garment-factoryJust who is responsible for the fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 100 workers in November?

The factory owner? The government of Bangladesh? US and European brands and retailers who bought the clothes made there? Shoppers who demand the latest styles at low prices?

And who deserves credit for the improvements in working conditions at Foxconn, China’s largest employer and Apple’s biggest supplier?

Apple? The Chinese labor market? Journalists at The New York Times?

Similar questions could be asked about paint factories that discharge pollution into rivers, toy factories that use dangerous chemicals or factories everywhere that run inefficient equipment or burn dirty fuels.

For nearly two decades, a core belief of the social-responsibility movement  has been that western brands and retailers must take responsibility for the social and environmental performance of the factories in their supply chain. This has created an immense infrastructure–an industry, really, of consultants who write codes of conduct for those factories, inspect the factories, report on them and deploy a combination of carrots and sticks that, at least in theory, bring about improved performance.

In essence, US and European brands have become quasi-governmental, undemocratic standards setters and enforcers of social and environmental norms.

So how’s it working? The year just past put a spotlight on a glaring failure of that system–the fire in Bangladesh, where factory conditions in the garment industry are widely deemed to remain unsafe–and on what has been cited as one of its successes–the new transparency of Apple’s supply chain, and the improved conditions at Foxconn, which supplies HP, Sony, Dell and other electronics companies, as well as Apple. [click to continue...]

Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

It’s Black Friday. Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

Yerdle is a sharing and shopping website and mobile app being launched today by two stalwarts of corporate sustainability — Adam Werbach, the former Sierra Club leader and Saatch & Saatchi marketing guy, and Andy Ruben, Walmart’s first sustainability director.

Andy and Adam, who are both 39 and live in San Francisco (natch), have come up with a very cool idea. Yerdle is a way for people who have stuff to give away, or other stuff they want, to share with one another–before heading out to the store to buy something new. By today, after a beta test in the Bay Area, they expect that more than 10,000 items will be offered on Yerdle.

I took a sneak peek at the site the other day and found, among other things, a Ikea children’s table and chairs, a yoga DVD, Sesame Street DVDs, red Baby Gap sweats, a dustbuster, a radio alarm clock, a laptop sleeve, a pasta maker, kids books, a collection of little wooden dress-up dolls, and more–and that’s before inviting my friends to join. [click to continue...]

Best Buy: Sustainability amidst turmoil

Best Buy has made headlines this year, and not the kind that any company wants:

Best Buy Cutting 50 Stores to Get Profitable. Good luck with that. (Forbes)

Best Buy CEO Resigns Under Cloud (Minneapolis StarTribune)

Best Buy Suffers For Lack of a Plan (New York Times)

Best Buy in Turmoil: Will It Survive? (Forbes, again)

Best Buy is losing market share to Amazon, its stock is down by 25 percent since the beginning of year (while the S&P 500 is up by 15 percent) and the company’s  founder Richard Schulze stepped down as chairman because he failed to tell the board about allegations that then-CEO Brian Dunn was having an inappropriate relationship with a female employee. Now Schulze wants to take the company private, maybe with money from Qatar. It’s more than enough to paralyze an organization or, at a minimum, distract everyone.

So how are the company’s sustainability efforts going? As it turns out…very well. [click to continue...]