Walmart’s Sustainability Index could be revolutionary

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Can you remember a time before you could flip over a food package and read the nutritional information on the back? Neither can I. That could just mean that we’re really young, but the point I’m trying to make is that putting nutritional information on a food package was a revolutionary idea that changed the way customers shop for food. That’s not to say that we look at the nutritional information before we purchase every food item or that the reporting system is perfect, but isn’t it amazing to know that we can? Isn’t it empowering to know that these details are readily available to us so we can make empowered choices?

I genuinely believe that Walmart’s upcoming sustainability index will have much the same effect on the way we shop for everyday products.

At the company’s Sustainability Milestone Meeting on Wednesday, they discussed not just the index, but how because of it and all the other changes Walmart is making on an internal level, sustainability has become a truly fundamental part of the way they do business.

And isn’t that what we want? For retail and corporate giants like Walmart to see sustainability not just as a way to entice new customers or market products, but as a way of life? Changes like this are the reason I chose to become a Walmart Mom in the first place. Because I truly believe that if we can move a mountain like Walmart toward greater sustainability, that will have a huge impact on the planet because the changes will have a trickle-down effect.

The sustainability index, which is still in development, is designed to help customers understand how and where a product was made, and its overall impact on the environment — and presumably, our health. It will evaluate a product’s components, its life cycle, its energy efficiency, its compliance with accepted standards and more. The chart below, revealed at the milestone meeting, gives an overall picture of how the index and scoring will work (click the image to see a larger version).

I think its safe to say that many of the products currently on the market will get pretty poor grades. Because — lets face it — the vast majority of new products are made via “traditional” methods: using virgin materials that are diffiicult, if not impossible, to recycle, with potentially toxic chemicals, and with methods and ingredients that often are not disclosed. In a perfect world, the sustainability index will begin to change that.

I believe that once a company sees its sustainability score stamped on a product for the world to see, particularly if it is placed side by side on a shelf with competing products that have a better score, they will be compelled to do what they can to improve their sustainability score. So even if customers don’t initially pick up a product because it has a higher score, if those changes happen on a manufacturing level, everyone who shops at Walmart will directly benefit.

It would also be in a supplier’s best interest to offer their new, more sustainable products to other retailers, because it probably wouldn’t be cost effective to manufacture two versions of the same product. And imagine the uproar if customers learned that the lotion they buy at Kroger contains parabens and other harsh chemicals, when the same exact product sold at Walmart does not.

I’m not saying that these changes will happen overnight, or that there won’t be kinks in the process. Of course the key to the effectiveness of this index will be how the scores are calculated in the first place. But what I’m saying is that this is a giant step in the right direction that has the potential to completely change the way we shop and the way manufacturers approach new products. And I really can’t wait to see how it turns out. It’s like Doug McMillon, President & CEO, Walmart International said:

Celebrate the small wins. Some of these ideas feel small when they start, but when you apply them across a company of our scale, they’re huge, which just increases the responsibility and obligation that we have.

You can watch a webcast of Walmart’s sustainability milestone meeting if you’d like to see all of this for yourself.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Walmart Moms program. I was provided with compensation for my time and effort in sharing my impressions of the Sustainability Milestone Meeting with you. Participation is voluntary and as usual, all opinions are my own.

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