Wal-Mart’s produce buyers will increasingly rate suppliers’ sustainability efforts when deciding where to purchase fresh produce and other food.
Speaking in Bentonville, Ark., at Wal-Mart’s inaugural Sustainable Product Expo, Jack Sinclair, executive vice president for the chain’s grocery division, said Wal-Mart is determined to support systems that produce more food on with less resources.
To do so, the chain is using its Sustainability Index to make purchasing decisions.
“We’re totally committed to the Sustainability Index, we’re very excited about the work going forward,” he said during the expo, featured in an online video.
Sinclair said Wal-Mart buys 1 billion pounds of bananas every year now and in five years may up that total to 2 billion. Potato purchases now total 900 million pounds, and that is also expected to double within five or six years, he said.
The Sustainability Index is one way the company is supporting a more efficient food supply, he said. In use since 2009, the index involves a 20-question survey. About 20% of Wal-Mart’s food suppliers have taken the survey, Sinclair said.
The list of products covered in the index is online. Apples, packaged salad, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, berries and citrus are listed.
Brenda Briggs, vice president of marketing for Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa., said the company has participated in the survey for several years. Briggs said she believes Wal-Mart considers sustainability one of several factors they use in choosing suppliers.
“It is part of the conversation and part of the partnership,” she said.
Wal-Mart isn’t the only retailer emphasizing sustainability.
“Suppliers are asked to participate at a much higher level now, not just growing a product and selling it — it is sustainability, it is food safety and ethical responsibility,” she said. “They have been a leader in that but many of our other customers are asking the same kinds of questions and seeking the same kind of transparency from suppliers.”
In his comments at the expo, Sinclair said agriculture needs to increase food production efficiency and reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
That also will reduce costs and reduce prices for consumers, he said.
Sinclair cited the improved performance of tomato suppliers in the past three years, rising from 39% in 2012 to 41% in 2013 to 52% in 2014.
Buyers are using sustainability as a fundamental part of how they source their products.
Overall, Sinclair said produce suppliers score 28% on the scale,
Sinclair said the index allows the chain to look at sourcing in a consistent way. He cited a recent trip to Peru.
“When we consider (whether we) should be buying blueberries from Peru — what is the carbon footprint, what is the impact across the board — the neat thing about the index is that allows us to compare one with the other.“