My Trip to Wal-Mart: In Search of Sustainability

Edit: visit PSI’s Flickr page to see some photos from the 6th Annual Walmart and Sam’s Club Sustainable Packaging Exposition.

Over the past few years, Wal-Mart has successfully shed its image of fueling America’s thirst for low-cost consumption to become a leader in the emerging field of sustainability. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak about product stewardship at Wal-Mart’s 6th Annual Sustainability Expo in Bentonville, Arkansas. My message was that companies have a unique responsibility to be stewards of their products across the entire lifecycle, and that government can be a good partner. While that message was embraced by many company leaders, I also ran into a tsunami of market-based mania that fears change and uncertain outcomes.

Bentonville is a mix between Rockwell-like farmland with horses and cattle roaming in fenced-in plains…and company row houses. The Expo was located at a hotel that became a Mecca for hundreds of Wal-Mart suppliers, each touting sustainability claims that were verified by PSI partner, EPI, which after six years of Expos, still found the need to correct the claims for two-thirds of the vendors prior to the show. Every commodity association was there – paper, aluminum, plastic, glass, metals. Every consumer packaged goods company was represented, like Colgate-Palmolive, Kraft, Unilever, and P&G. Companies were selling eco-packaging, defined in innumerable ways. And the Product Stewardship Institute was there, with our spiffy table-top display.

Coupled with the vendor booths were three morning presentations, one after the other, two at a time. The rest of the day was free to view the exhibits and mingle. I presented at one of the sessions (twice) and sat in on several of the others. Wal-Mart puts a tremendous amount of effort into defining sustainability for itself and its suppliers. Wal-Mart’s Scorecard compares suppliers on a range of sustainability criteria so that buyers can make decisions based on environmental factors as well as the usual price, quality, and other variables, although I did not hear anything about social criteria (child labor, worker issues, etc.) being measured. The presenters went into painstaking detail about how suppliers are to fill out their Scorecard. The room was packed, and people were paying close attention. I asked several suppliers what motivated them to make changes towards sustainability. “Because Wal-Mart’s asking us to do it,” was the reply.

Perhaps then it should be no surprise that some companies did not take kindly to being told they have a corporate responsibility in the form of product stewardship, and that there was a strong role for government. This is a crowd that runs on voluntary programs, that is motivated by the market, and wants to keep government about the size of a pinhead. They are motivated by cost savings from sustainability, and have not thought much about the environmental impacts of their products when consumers no longer want them.  I took the challenge, and told them about market failures, and about the four tons of mercury going into the environment each year from the disposal of thermostats despite a decade-old voluntary industry program. I made the usual case for jobs, economic value, environmental protection, and taxpayer savings. I described how PSI developed paint legislation jointly with the American Coatings Association, and how this has resulted in the expansion of the recycled paint manufacturing sector, just as legislation on electronics spurred huge growth in the electronics recycling sector years ago.

There was much positive response to what I discussed. However, I also learned that many companies are threatened by product stewardship. One senior executive of a pharmaceutical giant knew all about the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), including our national dialogue on medical sharps two years ago. His company is a major manufacturer of insulin and uses medical sharps as a means of delivering its medications to patients. He said he did not participate in our sharps dialogue because his company was not prepared to state its position. He complained that the dialogue was not developing solutions for real patients and that we didn’t know what patients wanted (even though we had patient advocate groups, sharps manufacturers, and other pharmaceutical companies at the table). During PSI’s two-year dialogue on medical sharps, we sketched out a statewide pilot project for the collection of sharps through various methods so we could evaluate the costs and complexities of such a model system. Unfortunately, the time and expense of developing the background information, reaching solutions, and designing a pilot came up short because the few key pharmaceutical companies (like this guy’s company) that needed to make a commitment refused to participate. Now, two years later, after billions more medical sharps have been disposed of in the trash, and after more worker injuries and added medical costs, I was told that this major company is working on an industry voluntary solution. He indicated he didn’t want any help.

Later, I saw a colleague from the American Chemistry Council and we talked about local government plastic bag bans and taxes, and how the Illinois legislation that requires producers to pay for recycling programs might be an interesting model, one that ACC and local governments in Illinois support. I then talked with one of ACC’s members and a founding member of AMERIPEN, the new lobbying group for consumer packaged goods companies. This person had attended my session, objected to EPR for packaging, objected to my slide on the benefits of EPR, and saw plastic bag bans as EPR which, by the way, she objects to.

All in all, I came away very impressed with Wal-Mart’s ability to motivate companies with the shear force of market optimism, its ability to stay on message with so many dedicated senior staff, and the results they have achieved. I also came away knowing that many companies and individuals shut down their communication because of fear about changes that product stewardship might bring. These people stop progress for themselves, their companies, and the social good. They are indicative of companies that will find themselves at the back of the pack in making the changes they need to stay competitive. They are risky investments.

I do not expect full agreement with the product stewardship message. But if a problem exists, such as waste, environmental externalities, pollution, lost jobs, and unnecessary costs, we need to put our heads together to come up with the answers. Company representatives that want government to wait until their company has an iron-clad position will only harden opposition to a joint solution.

As always, the Product Stewardship Institute is ready for discussion. We are ready to change our understanding of issues…because that is what happens when people talk to one another. But when problems persist, or if companies bury their heads, don’t expect PSI to stand by idly waiting for companies to finally decide they are ready. Where is the corporate responsibility in that? Where is the individual responsibility and personal commitment needed to take care of problems that products cause? If you work for a company and you don’t act now, try explaining that to your grandchildren.

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