Walmart seeks green balance

18 July 2012

NEW YORK: Walmart, the world's biggest retailer, is seeking to retain its focus on everyday low prices while meeting sustainability goals, something the company believes is not an "either/or" problem.

Speaking to GreenBiz, Andrea Thomas, Walmart's senior vice president, sustainability, argued the firm – which has a reputation for relentlessly pushing down prices and thus squeezing suppliers and trade partners – is "careful" about its strategic choices.

"The 'Walmart Effect' often has a negative connotation, but we realise the responsibility that comes with our size and scale. We're really careful not to make decisions without understanding the impact of those decisions," she said.

"We have the ability through simply reading our sales reports every day to figure out what people want, and we're doing things first and foremost that meet the needs of our customers.

However, Thomas asserted that the pursuit of low prices and serving environmental and social purposes are far from mutually exclusive. "I don't look at it as either/or," she said.

"As you look at how our business can make an impact because of its breadth, size and scale, you must look at where the levers of the business overlap with environmental and social initiatives."

One example is the Direct Farm scheme in emerging markets. Building direct relationships with farmers as part of this programme means Walmart can guarantee product quality and ensure both parties benefit financially, as no middlemen are involved.

Walmart operates 69 retail chains in 27 countries, generating sales of $444bn during the 2012 fiscal year. Its sustainability team has 14 members, but Thomas suggested all 2.2m staff have a role to play.

"In any company – but especially in big companies – it takes a lot to get people to think about what they're doing," Thomas said. "Sustainability is really everybody's job. No matter where they're sitting in the organisation, they have the opportunity to make an impact."

At the wider level, Walmart is a member of The Sustainability Consortium, the industry forum, and holds working group meetings every month featuring non-governmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Resources Council.

It has also introduced a pioneering environmental scorecard against which to measure all the firm's in its supply chain, a group that is actually responsible for 90% of Walmart's carbon footprint.

"The product supply chain is a really big challenge.  It requires a lot of people looking down the supply chain. You start to see how many different things go into one relatively simple-looking product," said Thomas.

Data sourced from Green Biz; additional content by Warc staff