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Walmart Flexes Its Sustainability Muscles

October 14, 2010

This article originally appears on the CSR Blog. Click here to read the article on that site.

The famous cartoon character Popeye is no stranger to the power of  produce. The world’s largest retailer isn’t either.  In an announcement made today about new commitments to sustainable agriculture, Walmart not only declared its intentions, but also stated it recognizes the power it has to incentivize social and environmental changes through commerce. In effect, Walmart’s announcement provides a huge shot in the arm for sustainable agriculture.

What did the company say that’s so important? The company’s announcement outlines how it claims it will help small and medium-sized farmers and reduce the environmental impact of farming. First let’s look at just some of the commitments being made. By the end of 2015, Walmart will:

  • Sell $1 billion in food sources from 1 million small & medium farmers
  • Provide training to 1 million farmers and workers in sustainable farming practices (the company expects half of those trained to be women)
  • Double its sale of locally sourced produce (in the U.S.)

Moreover, due to its footprint, the company has tremendous influence over a number of companies, farmers, and eventually consumers. To leverage its power, Walmart will ask its suppliers to quantify the amount of water, energy, fertilizer, and the pesticides they use, per unit of food produced. This is new for the company. By the sheer scale of Walmart’s market-making procurement power, by merely asking for this information, the company will likely begin to catalyze changes in the industry.

In addition, the company made commitments to require the suitable sourcing of palm oil and the expansion of Walmart Brazil’s policies for beef sourcing that does not contribute to deforestation of the Amazon. These are two important environmental issues. The company claims it will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons by the end of 2015 due to its palm oil policies. The company also underscored that 60% of the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon is due to cattle ranching expansion.

You could be forgiven for thinking this might just be another public relations move by a big company to wrap itself in a cloak of “green” efforts. But that ignores a number of factors. One is the tone of voice the company’s announcement is taking. Take a look at the statements by Mike Duke, the president and CEO of Walmart:

More than 1 billion people around the world rely on farming and hundreds of millions of them live on less than $2 a day. Globally with a booming population, food product must increase roughly 70% to feed 9 billion people in 2050. Through sustainable agriculture, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a positive difference in food production — for farmers, communities and customers. Our efforts will help increase farmer incomes, lead to more efficient use of pesticides, fertilizer and water, and provide fresher produce for our customers.

If you were to strip out the identifying information in Duke’s quote, you might think that this were a statement from the senior executive of a non-governmental organization advocating for sustainable agriculture.  Walmart has positioned its CEO as an advocate not only for sustainable agriculture, but as an advocate for the connection between agricultural practices, environmentalism, and – surprisingly for a company often criticized for paying low-wages – global poverty.

Second, such cynicism ignores the changes about to come. Through its work with the Sustainability Consortium, an organization the company created and funded to quantify the sustainability impact of products at the individual product level, the purchasing habits of millions of Walmart customers are about to change. Indeed, again because of its size, such changes will likely even influence the purchasing decisions of Walmart’s competitors and therefore non-Walmart customers.

Who knew that in the non-cartoon world a can of spinach could do so much?


The writer is President of Do Well Do Good, LLC.

(c) 2010 – Citizen Polity

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