Last Thursday, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant announced it would question all 100,000 of its suppliers about the overall environmental impact of the goods they provide. Among the topics will be greenhouse gas emissions, manufacturing waste and natural materials used.
According to Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg, the information will be used by a consortium of universities — initially funded by Wal-Mart — that will work with suppliers, outside retailers and other interested parties to develop what Lundberg called a “single, open-source platform” to rank the environmental impact of every product carried in-store.
According to Wal-Mart, the initiative will not be seen in stores for at least five years. But the industry impact could be more immediate.
Melanie Owens, VP of Pickerington, Ohio-based R.G. Barry Corp.’s global Wal-Mart division, said her company — which supplies the chain and its Sam’s Club division with the DF and Dreamtop slipper lines — had already started working to answer the retailer’s questions. “We’re prepared and eager to support the initiative,” Owens said.
And Wal-Mart’s size and purchasing power could drive change in the industry, even for non-suppliers, said Elaine Delgado, manager of sustainable product stewardship at Boston-based New Balance. “This is a great opportunity for the rest of us who are involved in making shoes in China,” she said. “Wal-Mart speaks and people listen because of their extreme volume. They could impact all industries.”
Delgado added that the Wal-Mart initiative could benefit smaller companies that lack the resources to assess their own supply chains. “If Wal-Mart did create a standard, maybe the homework they did would make it easier [for smaller companies] to follow their standard — and avoid the duplication of effort,” she said.
Still, Adam Hughes, administrator of the Leather Working Group, an industry association of tanneries and brands, said environmental assessments are no simple matter. “Measuring your carbon footprint is not that straightforward,” he cautioned, adding that LWG has found that driving change at the manufacturing level requires a significant commitment to education and follow-through.
According to Lundberg, the new consortium will draw on established protocols at Wal-Mart. And the company plans to tap into the expertise of other global partners to develop the initiative. “For this to succeed, it has to be bigger than Wal-Mart,” he said. “And that’s the point of what we’re doing.”