Wal-Mart turns up heat on sustainability goals

08/04/2011 01:21:00 PM
Tom Karst

Wal-Mart appears to be stepping up efforts to measure sustainability among its produce suppliers and is using some tools developed by the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops.

In a recent presentation to some industry members at the 2011 Sustainable Food Lab Leadership Summit in late June near Portland, Ore., officials with Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart said it is looking at what types of data to collect with an expanded pilot program for measuring produce sustainability.

Industry sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the retailer indicated it will ask top producers in its global food sourcing network to complete a Sustainable Produce Assessment this year.

Metrics developed by the California-based Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops are at least partially included in Wal-Mart’s Sustainable Produce Assessment, Wal-Mart officials said in their presentation. Those metrics include growers’ use of water, energy and fertilizer/nutrients, and a measure to track soil organic matter. From growers, Wal-Mart also is requesting measures of waste, pesticides, refrigerants, yields and other inputs.

While it has used a self-assessment from some produce suppliers in the U.S. Wal-Mart is employing sustainability audits for growers of South African apples and pears, Spanish stone fruits United Kingdom leafy greens.

The retailer said it plans to draft merchant pilot reports, launch additional crop pilots and add a packing phase to its assessment.

A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment.

Industry sources said Wal-Mart is seeking input on sustainability measures, and posted a survey online for input on what items to include on its sustainability assessment.

According to the presentation, the company is working with the Sustainability Consortium to adopt produce category assessments to speed up the development of an index for fresh produce.

Membership of the Sustainability Consortium, jointly administered by the University of Arkansas and the University of Arizona, includes representation from Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Tyson, Unilever, Proctor and Gamble and others. According to the group’s website, the group formed in 2009 and its mission is to understand and standardize measures of sustainability. A call to the group for comment was not returned.

“The bottom line is that the Stewardship Index metrics are going to be available for use by any of the stakeholders throughout the fruit and vegetable supply chain,” said Jessica Siegal, program director for the California-based Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. “Wal-Mart has been involved on the coordinating council for the Stewardship Index since the very early days of the program and they are looking at how to figure out how to incorporate the metrics into their sustainable produce assessment.”


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Steve Savage    
Encinitas, CA  |  August, 05, 2011 at 12:12 PM

I'm a scientist who has spent a great deal of time participating on three SISC metric committees over the last 2.5 years. Over that time I've come to the conclusion that although on-farm sustainability metrics are a good concept in theory, they are not actually able to accurately quantify many of the most important parameters (erosion, GHG balance..). Even more importantly, what can be optimized at the field level is mostly just incremental at this point. What really matters for fresh produce sustainability is what happens downstream from the farm. "Shrink" at various stages in the value chain can easily mean that 20-50% of the resources back at the farm were wasted on growing food that is never eaten. If you look at the participants in the Sustainability Consortium, they have a lot more ability to fix that sustainability issue by the way that they purchase (e.g. long-term supply agreements...) and by the way that they handle what they buy (e.g. proper storage and display conditions). These players could also focus on supply chain modifications that are focused on taste quality so that the produce is actually eaten by the consumers that buy it (see the following blog post about "disappointment shrink") http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2011/02/how-to-make-fresh-produce-production.html I understand the desire of the produce industry to see a single standard here, but it is even more important that any metrics that are used measure what actually matter the most, not just what can be tracked most easily

Barry Maitland    
Pateros,WA  |  August, 07, 2011 at 12:52 PM

I'm a small acreage fruit grower. If we want good tasting produce, we might try keeping agribusiness and the white shirts of Wal-Mart off the land. Not being a scientist, I can only believe that consensus farming will give you a consensus tasting cucumber. If Wal-Mart is concerned about sustainability, why don't they stop using slave labor overseas to make their cheap products that don't last causing excessive use of natural resources--maybe they could bring those jobs home, and pay a living wage to help improve and sustain the United States' health. No, that can't be done, because the greater the their waste and the greater their human rights abuse the greater their profits. When Wal-Mart wants to appear the good "Corporate" citizen "it" places the heavy lifting on someone else's back. Of course, Wal-Mart is not singular in its profound hypocrisy.

Felix Ramirez    
Wiscosnin  |  August, 08, 2011 at 04:12 PM

I agree with Steve S. you can develop all the metrics you want but the real waste is not just in the crop production inputs but downstream from the harvest to consumption. We eat with our eyes and much of what gets produced at the farm stays at the farm. Additionally, having been a produce buyer for over 20 years I agree that the supply chain is very inefficient as it pertains to both the foodservice and retail channels. I have seen a lot of dollars in food losses due to shrink from "market shrink" and actual handling of the product. All involved in the supply chain need to work closer together, but until some of the greed involved that will be impossible. I am looking at more local/regional production opportunities that will have a big impact on the the food supply. There are a lot of opportunities if we just open our mind to the possibilities. We know we can't solve 100% of the issues of wasted inputs from shrink and other causes but there are very real and practical solutions we just have not wanted to implement. Its time to look a little closer and a little deeper into what we have to do.

Rick VanVranken    
Mays Landing, NJ  |  August, 09, 2011 at 10:48 AM

“We are not creating standards. We are creating yardsticks” ... but if you don't measure up, you won't be sustainable at all because you won't be able to sell your produce! Steve's comment reminds me for about the fifth time this summer that someone or some situation has pointed out that we can produce all the food that we need to feed much of the world's anticipated population growth, but the significant waste due to mishandling from farm to fork seems to get ignored/overlooked. The UN did it. Now WalMart. It's bad enough in developed countries but it's horrendous in developing countries. Retailers need to stop putting additional burdens on farmers to comply with standards that do little more than offer 'feel good' PR opportunities. Let's start addressing the areas that need to be corrected!

Chip Seck    
Salinas Valley  |  August, 16, 2011 at 09:58 AM

Steve hits it right on the head. I see so much more waste as a result of things that happen after it is grown and cooled. Temperature abuse in transit and on the receiving end is just one way that these products can be ruined. How about when an item gets to the DC even slightly past their "minimum days left" threshold and they reject or refuse it. Is this sustainable? In the last paragraph, PMA says that they are not creating standards, but instead, yardsticks. It has been my experience that a yardstick turns into a whipping stick most of the time. All of these auditing companies are the one's that stand to profit from all of this. This is why they are all back in bentonville pitching how there audit is better than the others because the measure so much more than the other guy, regardless of whether or not it moves the sustainability needle one bit. More cost being driven into the system with the same price paid.....doesn't seem very sustainable for farmers fighting to stay in business?

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