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The Wal-Mart Sustainability Summit

July 30, 2008

Editor’s note: Today’s blog comes from Che Mott, Aravo’s VP of Supply Chain Development. Che recently attended a Wal-Mart sustainability summit. The event brought together key players in corporate sustainability for a brainstorming and feedback session that will influence Wal-Mart’s strategies for building a more sustainable supply chain.

Che writes:
The Sunday afternoon two-jump flight to Northern Arkansas was uneventful. But I did have the pleasure of running into one of my old grad school professors, Kellie McElhaney, in the Oakland airport. Kellie, who leads the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, looked up at me and said "Going to Wal-Mart?" “Sure am,” I replied – wondering who else would be there.

Kellie and I were joined by people from as far away as Brazil, the Netherlands, and other parts of the world in what Wal-Mart’s SVP of Sustainability Matt Kistler announced was an historic event. It was hard not to agree that this massive company could have a marked influence on the environment and communities the world over. Both for those it serves, but also for those touched by the global supply chains that stock Wal-Mart shelves.

Ninety-two percent of Wal-Mart’s environmental footprint comes from their supply chain, which demonstrates how important this ‘wedge’ really is to their business and to their sustainability efforts. Of course their sheer size gives them enormous supply chain influence. Most of those attending the summit came out of the U.S., including leading brands in electronics, food (produce & meat/dairy), forest products, jewelry, solid wood products, textiles, paper, and apparel. Working groups in these categories spent the three days collaborating in ways that would make Henry Chesbrough (author of one of my favorite books, called "Open Innovation‘) proud.

Beyond Wal-Mart suppliers, there were many other groups there. I met Andrew from the Environmental Defense Fund, Linda from the World Wildlife Foundation, Jill from the EPA Energy Star, and university researchers from Massachusetts, Arkansas and California. There were even a few representatives from the UN in the room. I also was glad to catch up with Betsey Blaisdell, who had sat with me on a carbon footprinting panel in 2007. Wal-Mart had invited her to present Timberland’s experience rolling out environmental impact labels on their products.

Over the course of the three days, the brainstorming around Wal-Mart’s sustainable supply chain program was discussed from a whole range of perspectives. Twenty tables of 8 to 10 people filled the hall. Everyone spent a lot of the time huddling up on ideas for how to implement the program, drawing process flows, throwing ideas on sticky notes, defining metrics, etc.

One participant from a brand that had implemented their own sustainability program noted that Wal-Mart was trying to do in 3 days what had taken them 5 years to accomplish. Was it possible to incorporate all these ideas in such a short period of time? Was the Index model already locked down and were we just window dressing? Or would they take the feedback, suggestions, and ideas and actually bake these things into their first rollout plans in 2009?

Either way, the fact that Wal-Mart, which reportedly touches 1/3 of the world’s productive capacity, was interested in defining the ‘world standard’ for sustainable supply chains felt big. Their program seeks to be comprehensive, ranging from upstream social standards in the Utah mine that produces material for jewelry; water and toxic footprints from the Turkish cotton fields that provide fabric for your t-shirts; the economies of packaging; energy usage of trucking fleets that connect the warehouse in Tianjin with a port on the coast of China; carbon footprints of ships; energy efficiency during product use; the ability for product materials to be reused or recycled and much more. All of these are on the table to be incorporated into Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index.

My role, representing Aravo, was unique in that we were one of the few software companies attending the Sustainability Index Summit. I was certainly glad to be in that room in Arkansas to brainstorm with the brightest minds in the business, to innovate, to understand the role we can play, and to help build a new vision of how business will be done in the future. Now it’s all about the execution.

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5 Comments to “The Wal-Mart Sustainability Summit”

  1. Why create another standard that will only be used at one retailer. What about one with broad market appeal, such as JumpGauge Interactive Labeling (http://www.JumpGauge.com/)? Consumers could use it at all retailers, not just Walmart. Interactive labeling also offers greater transparency and knowledge transfer than a simple questionnaire

  2. Hiya!. Thanks for the blog. I’ve been digging around looking some info up for shool, but i think i’m getting lost!. Google lead me here – good for you i guess! Keep up the great information. I will be coming back over here in a couple of days to see if there is updated posts.

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  5. Hi, this is an interesting point, i think there are a lot of things to discuss in the future…


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