What does Wal-Mart’s sustainability push mean? - The Packer

What does Wal-Mart’s sustainability push mean?

05/02/2014 10:31:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom Karst, National EditorTom Karst, National EditorWal-Mart is again affirming its support of its Sustainability Index as a measure to help the chain decide what suppliers to use for fresh produce and other food.

The global chain’s inaugural Sustainable Product Expo drew plenty of press in late April, and Jack Sinclair, executive vice president for the chain’s grocery division, specifically referred to sustainability index scores for produce suppliers. Wal-Mart has been sending out sustainability index surveys for several years.

The list of current and future products covered in the index includes apples, packaged salad, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, berries and citrus.

The chain has been working since 2005 to increase food sustainability, and since 2009 Wal-Mart has asked increasing numbers of suppliers to participate in a 20-question Sustainability Index survey. So far, about 20% of Wal-Mart’s food suppliers are covered in the Sustainability Index survey, Sinclair said.

So far, so good.

I’m curious, however, as to just how useful those sustainability survey scores are in setting the list of favored Wal-Mart suppliers. Can we believe the corporate talk that sustainability is vitally important?

One step Wal-Mart said it will take soon is to identify suppliers who are category leaders in sustainability on a consumer website. If that website includes fresh produce suppliers, that is one tangible way to give sustainability high-performers a carrot.

To have real significance, though, there must be a formula used to determine how “sustainability” fits into the overall set of factors important to the chain. Sustainability is important, yes, but how does it rank compared with consistent quality and condition?

Less fertilizer, water and pesticide use is wonderful, true, but how is all that measured next to the f.o.b. price?

How does sustainability compare with social welfare values, or treatment of minorities and women? Or “grown in the USA,” for that matter?

In fact, sustainability is nothing more than another exercise in paperwork unless there is a fixed formula to give it an assigned value in ranking suppliers. Yet, if there is a set value and formula, more documentation and third-party audits will be required.

All this comes in the backdrop of supplier audit fatigue.

In an opinion piece in The Packer April 28, Joel Nelsen of California Citrus Mutual noted that if one retailer cares about sustainability, the next one will care even more.

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