Walmart, suppliers continue sustainability collaboration

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,838 views 

Walmart held its annual Sustainability Summit in Bentonville on Tuesday (Oct. 4), convening suppliers, non-government organization partners and others to discuss successes and ongoing challenges with the retailer’s goal to become a fully regenerative company by 2040.

“Everything we do is around a central mission of saving people time and money so they can live better, and that includes more sustainably,” CEO Doug McMillon said.

He said Walmart would be the first to admit that it will take everyone if this generation is to pass on a sustainable world to future generations.

Bentonville-based Walmart created Project Gigaton in 2017 to engage suppliers and other stakeholders up and down the supply chain to reduce carbon emissions. The goal is to reduce or avoid one billion metric tons (a gigaton) of greenhouse gasses from the global value chain by 2030.

Project Gigaton involved setting targets and taking measurable action to reduce emissions across six areas critical to reaching zero emissions. The six areas are energy use, nature, waste, packaging, transportation, and product use and design. More than 4,700 suppliers to Walmart joined the Project Gigaton pledge.

Walmart said at the end of 2021, it is 57% toward its 2030 goal and while that’s great progress, much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Walmart said it is now more committed to embedding sustainability into every conversation it has with suppliers, service partners, store and club managers, truck manufacturers and other important parts of its massive supply chain.

Walmart said it continues to work to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags, having completely eliminated them in Canada since April, and a growing number of states, including California and New Jersey.

Diane Marshall, operations leader for Walmart’s Southwest Regions, said Walmart found an antimicrobial mat made from recycled plastic bottles and tires. She said Walmart’s order of 400,000 of those mats kept 400,000 tires out of landfills as each mat used the rubber from one tire as well as recycled bottles. Marshall said sustainability has been in every decision the company makes if it is going to become totally regenerative by 2040.

The retail giant is also working with suppliers to help change shopper behaviors. Unilever said it supports the Gigaton initiative, and by radically changing the plastic bottle packaging of Dove branded projects, it saved enough bottles to wrap around the planet three times.

PepsiCo said its goal to use only recycled plastic for its beverages is lofty, but it starts with changing consumer behaviors. The beverage giant piloted a bottle take-back program in Tulsa earlier this year with Walmart, and the retailer is also partnering with Procter & Gamble and Terracycle to recycle all beauty brand packaging at 25 store locations, including Northwest Arkansas. Customers can drop off empty shampoo bottles, and make-up or skincare products at the pilot drop-off locations. The products are cleaned and reused by suppliers.

Charles Redfield, the chief merchant at Walmart U.S., said it’s not enough to do no harm, but stakeholders must also seek to restore the natural resources that have already been depleted. Walmart acquired in August a minority stake in Sustainable Beef LLC, a rancher-owned company in North Platte, Neb. Plans call for the $325 million project to break ground this month and open by late 2024. The more than 500,000-square-foot plant is expected to process 1,500-plus cattle per day and create more than 800 new jobs.

Walmart claims its work with Sustainable Beef will drive more capacity for the beef industry. With the investment, Walmart also will have representation on Sustainable Beef’s board. It is also a way for Walmart to have end-to-end traceability for its beef products.

Sustainable Beef will work with cattle feeders and ranchers to bolster key elements of the supply chain, such as grain sourcing and grazing management, as well as veterinarian-approved animal care principles.

“We set out on a journey two years ago to create a new beef processing plant to add some capacity to the industry and provide an opportunity for producers to integrate their business of raising quality cattle with the beef processing portion of the industry and do it in a sustainable manner,” said Sustainable Beef CEO David Briggs.

There remain critics who say the retail giant could and should do more. A June 2021 report from Boston-based Corporate Accountability said there are plenty of companies who are big polluters like Walmart advancing a “net zero” climate agenda.

“Walmart’s climate plan entirely neglects its value chain emissions, which account for an estimated 95% of the corporation’s carbon footprint,” the report states.

On Tuesday, Walmart also unveiled several electric or hydrogen cell vehicles it is purchasing over the next couple of years. But critics said Walmart’s massive trucking fleet will still predominantly be fueled by diesel.

“After The Big Con, it’s hard not to see the recent fervor over ‘net zero’ as anything but a scheme propped up by big polluters that’s way too little, way too late,” said Rachel Rose Jackson of Corporate Accountability, “These players stacked the deck to make sure the world would hinge its hopes on plans that are nothing more than greenwashing. If we don’t course correct now, the world will be on the fast track to climate destruction incompatible with life as we know it.”