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.

Wal-Mart turns up heat on sustainability goals

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.”

By mid-September, Siegal said the beta version of the Stewardship Index metrics will available on the group’s website.

“The idea is that the Sustainability Consortium is a bigger look at a number of sectors in addition to fresh food and the plan is that the Stewardship Index would be able to feed directly into the food and beverage component of what the Sustainability Consortium is working towards.”

Siegal said the Stewardship Index is focused on the development and adoption of metrics, forging consensus on what is in the metric and also how the metrics are adopted by the entire supply chain.

In 2010, the Stewardship Index had 38 growers participating in pilot projects, which Siegal said yielded 58 data sets. Those pilots resulted in refined metrics that were smaller and easier to use. Beta metrics include measures of energy use, water use, nutrient use and soil condition. The Stewardship Index has developed a calculator that can be embedded in a spreadsheet to help growers input their data.

Siegal said the Stewardship Index wants to establish one set of metrics for fresh produce.

“We will be far better off if it is a single set of metrics that is everybody is collaborating around,” she said.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said the advantage of the Stewardship Index metrics is that growers would only have to measure one for any standard.

“We are not creating standards. We are creating yardsticks,” Means said.