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Can a Sustainable Walmart Change the World?

In what some say could be a game-changing initiative, Walmart Stores last week announced that it will focus on smaller, globally sustainable agriculture to revitalize rural communities and reduce the impact farming has on the environment.

According to the press release the company issued on Thursday, the retail giant plans to “help small and medium sized farmers expand their businesses, get more income for their products, and reduce the environmental impact of farming, while strengthening local economies and providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food.”

The announcement came to many as a dramatic shift from Walmart’s previous business policies; however, sustainability goals and outreach to local farmers are not entirely new objectives for the company. 

At the beginning of the decade, Walmart became an industry-wide leader in environmental sustainability.  In 2005, the company launched its “Sustainability 360″ campaign, setting broad goals that included supplying its stores with 100 percent renewable energy sources, encouraging its suppliers to reduce waste, and stocking its shelves with items produced using sustainable methods. 

Although Mike Duke, president and CEO of Walmart, remarked in a 2009 Global Sustainability Report that there was still a lot of work to be done to attain its 2005 goals, the report demonstrated that the company had implemented practices to improve its sustainability record both nationally and globally. 

For instance, the report cited investments in wind and hydroelectric power to supply some of its stores, placement of “green” products in stores ranging from energy-efficient appliances to environmentally preferable household cleaning products, and the company’s commitment to encouraging customers to use reusable shopping bags to eliminate the waste from plastic shopping bags. 

In addition to its environmental programs, Walmart has previously demonstrated a desire to revitalize small farming communities by buying a percentage of the store’s food inventory from local growers.  Earlier this year, Food Safety News reported on Walmart’s efforts to support the local food movement through its Heritage Agriculture program. 

Walmart’s Ron McCormick, senior director for Strategic Food Sourcing, told Food Safety News that the economic decline of many rural farming regions was one reason that prompted Walmart’s interest in establishing a connection with local food producers. 

McCormick explained that many areas throughout the US that were once supported by thriving agricultural economies are now often home to a Walmart Food distribution center.  ”It made sense to us, that if we could revitalize those economies, it would let us buy fresher product for our customers and save food miles.   At the same time, we would be supporting many rural communities that support our stores,” he said.

With its announcement Thursday, Walmart has taken additional steps toward its commitment to sustainability by setting policies that will not only reduce harm to the environment, but may pave the way for small and medium sized farms to prosper.

Walmart divides its new Global Sustainable Agriculture strategy into three broad areas, which each contain specific short-term supporting goals to help the company track and report progress.

The first area focuses on supporting farmers and their communities. Walmart hopes that by 2015 it will have helped many small and mid-sized farmers gain access to markets that were not available to them previously. 

To accomplish this goal, the company wants to sell $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farmers in emerging markets, provide training and infrastructure to 1 million farmers and farm workers in such as crop selection and sustainable farming practices, and increase the income of the small and medium farmers it sources from by 10 to 15 percent.  In addition, Walmart says it sill double its sale of locally sourced produce to 9 percent through its Heritage Agriculture program.

The company’s second key area of focus is to produce more food with fewer resources and less waste. In tackling this, Walmart will, for the first time, ask its suppliers about the amount of water, energy, fertilizer and pesticide used per unit of food produced.  Moreover, the company intends to invest more than $1 billion over the next five years in its global fresh food supply chain and to significantly reduce food waste.

Perhaps most significant, however, will be the company’s pledge to increase the use and effectiveness of its Sustainability Index

The index was created as a tool to aid consumers in their food choices. Beginning with a survey of global suppliers within Walmart’s supply chain that measures each companies’ sustainability record, the company says the data collected will ultimately be used to provide greater transparency to customers through a sustainability rating system.  Accordingly, customers should be able to examine how a product was grown and shipped before making their purchase.   

According to Marty Matlock, a professor of ecological engineering at the University of Arkansas, “The index represents a real number that will mean improvement on the ground: improving ecosystem health, soil health and food quality.”

Finally, the third prong of Wal,art’s global initiative involves sustainably sourced key agricultural products.  In particular, Walmart has indicated that it will be focusing its energies on resolving what are now two major contributors to global deforestation–palm oil and beef production.

By the end of 2015, all Walmart private brand products globally that use palm oil will have to use sustainably sourced palm oil.  The company predicts that sourcing sustainable palm oil for private brand products in the United Kingdom and the US alone will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons by the end of 2015.

With regards to beef production, Walmart expressed its intention to require by 2015 the already existing practice of Wamart Brazil of only sourcing beef that does not contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. 

The company has also received firm commitments from stores in Japan, India, China, and Canada, pledging to meet country-specific sustainability goals. 

Although somewhat lofty, the goals resonated with environmental and sustainable farming advocates in large part because of Walmart’s size and widespread reach. 

As the largest grocer in the world, Walmart serves customers and members more than 200 million times per week at more than 8,400 retail units under 55 different banners in 15 countries.  With annual sales reaching $405 billion and two million employees, any change in Walmart policies has major implications for the worldwide environment and the global food system. 

“No other retailer has the ability to make more of a difference than Walmart,” said Mike Duke on Thursday.  He continued, “Through sustainable agriculture, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a positive difference
in food production–for farmers, communities and customers.”

Some question Walmart’s motives and wonder whether this initiative is altruistic or simply better for the company’s bottom-line, or perhaps both. 

Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University commented, “I, of course, am a skeptic.  Of course Walmart wants to get into the business of sustainably and locally grown food.  Walmart is the largest grocery chain in the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the industry.  It can demand whatever it wants from its suppliers, and at the lowest possible cost.”

Nestle asked rhetorically whether Walmart’s initiatives will help farmers.  She said she will “want to wait and see how it all plays out before making a final judgment.”

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org hhamil

    It is easy to see that this is nothing more that Walmart’s latest salvo in its strategy to co-opt the terms “local” and “sustainable.” The place to start is by reading the entire press release linked above at http://walmartstores.com/pressroom/news/10376.aspx.
    To understand this has little to do with American production, one need only notice how little American farmers are mentioned in the press release.
    Then consider the meaning of the first of the 4 points in the press release, “ By the end of 2015 in emerging markets, Walmart will help many small and mid-sized farmers gain access to markets by: selling $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farmers.” [The emphasis is mine.]
    First, what is meant by “emerging markets?” Though the term is never defined or even mentioned again, it is clear from the rest of the press release that Walmart’s focus is sourcing overseas.
    Then notice that it says “selling” food worth $1 billion. Is that retail or Walmart’s cost? If we give Walmart the benefit of the doubt and say it means Walmart will pay the $1 billion to farmers. That is $1,000,000,000 spread across 1,000,000 farmers or an average of just $1,000 per farmer!
    And how much will it cost those farmers to be able to interface with Walmart’s procurement system? As everyone growing produce knows the requirements to sell to a company like Walmart are huge. And Walmart won’t buy it in $1,000 increments. The only way that can be done is by the small and medium farmers banding together in co-operative packing, marketing and distribution systems which are expensive to operate.
    I would say that this is nothing more than “putting lipstick on a pig” but to do so would insult the pig.

  • http://www.ScoringAg.com William Kanitz – President

    To accomplish this goal,WalMart,the company wants to sell $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farmers in emerging markets, provide training and infrastructure to 1 million farmers and farm workers in such things as crop selection and sustainable farming practices, and increase the income of the small and medium farmers it sources from by 10 to 15 percent.
    Since a traceback database will be needed if Walmart is serious about food safety that runs in all of the countries listed in the above story as would the certification costs would have to be cut by 75%, or will Walmart just pay more for the produce and cut their own profits?

  • Doc Mudd

    Let me get this straight — a credible retail entity undertakes to move one billion (that’s one billion, with a B!) dollars worth of product from “local, sustainable” growers…this retailer, WalMart, isn’t bluffing – they’ve consistently followed through on published intentions in the past – and what is the response of the self-annointed spokespeople of “local, sustainable farmers” here on Food Safety News? Well, they doubt and gripe and complain, of course — they always do, always. They claim to be prematurely worried about their grubby profit margins, again, as usual.
    Sorta looks like the vocal uber-trendy hobby farmers are about to have their bluff uncovered. They’ve prattled on and on about their prowess as growers, blathered on and on about the imagined safety and superiority of their fabled magical produce and now, finally, just when they get their big chance to ‘really go to town’ (quite literally) they choke. So, what are you afraid of…success?
    About to be exposed as dreamers, imposters and prevaricators…but of the very, very finest local sort, of course.

  • dangermaus

    To a certain extent, Walmart’s entry into any popular trend is inevitable – they’re a freakin’ force of nature, and they can do good things… For example, the South Side of Chicago is one of the country’s largest “food deserts” as a result of idiotic/corrupt governance that had made it impossible to open a decent grocery store. The city council FINALLY dropped objections to Walmart building stores here, and they are already planning on building dozens of grocery stores, many of those in the areas that don’t have anywhere to buy fresh produce within two miles.
    I think if Walmart labels their food truthfully, and in a way that allows people to conduct research on the provenance of the food, this could be a very good thing. Who knows if they will, though. If they don’t, though, they won’t get much traction with people willing to pay more for traceable food.

  • dmd

    Sadly, WalMart’s history suggests that they will develop exclusive partnership with growers (here or abroad) then, after the growers have severed all existing commercial ties, will demand that WalMart’s cost for the same product be significantly reduced. Having lost their previous commercial relationships, growers will be forced to bend to WalMart’s will.

  • dangermaus

    I should have read more carefully. If they’re talking about sourcing food from small famers in Africa, and then shipping it over here, that’s most definately not “local” in any meaningful way, and they’re missing the point. I imagine they might be doing both – sourcing food from small farmers internationally, and from farms near the physical stores.
    In any event, people who are serious about sustainable agriculture are pretty jaded when it comes to that kind of labeling. “USDA Organic” used to usually mean sustainable, but no longer does, just like “free range” used to mean pastured, but no longer does. We’ll investigate their claims before paying twice as much for a given food item. I’m sure they’d fool a lot of gullible people just by stamping the word “local” on it, though – just like they use the terms “Heart-Healthy” and “Diet” in completely meaningless ways.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org Harry Hamil

    It is easy to see that this is nothing more that Walmart’s latest salvo in its strategy to co-opt the terms “local” and “sustainable.” The place to start is by reading the entire press release linked above at http://walmartstores.com/pressroom/news/10376.aspx.
    To understand this has little to do with American production, one need only notice how little American farmers are mentioned in the press release.
    Then consider the meaning of the first of the 4 points in the press release, “ By the end of 2015 in emerging markets, Walmart will help many small and mid-sized farmers gain access to markets by: selling $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farmers.” [The emphasis is mine.]
    First, what is meant by “emerging markets?” Though the term is never defined or even mentioned again, it is clear from the rest of the press release that Walmart’s focus is sourcing overseas.
    Then notice that it says “selling” food worth $1 billion. Is that retail or Walmart’s cost? If we give Walmart the benefit of the doubt and say it means Walmart will pay the $1 billion to farmers. That is $1,000,000,000 spread across 1,000,000 farmers or an average of just $1,000 per farmer!
    And how much will it cost those farmers to be able to interface with Walmart’s procurement system? As everyone growing produce knows the requirements to sell to a company like Walmart are huge. And Walmart won’t buy it in $1,000 increments. The only way that can be done is by the small and medium farmers banding together in co-operative packing, marketing and distribution systems which are expensive to operate.
    I would say that this is nothing more than “putting lipstick on a pig” but to do so would insult the pig.

  • TM Lahti

    OK you Walmart haters, I’m going to drop a bomb on you. In our market in the midwest you can already get more locally grown and produced food at Walmart than you can at Whole Foods. I haven’t a clue as to why someone would want to ship milk products into WI or wheat products into MN but they do. I think it’s great that consumers are paying more attention to where the food that they eat comes from and how it is produced. This is good for our farmers markets, good for our local co-ops, good for Walmart and good for us.