Walmart recently launched its Sustainability Leaders shop, an on-line shopping center designed to easily identify products made by Walmart’s  “best in class” Sustainability Leaders. The shop features 10,000 products bearing the Sustainability Leader badge, from companies across 80 categories. The launch was greeted with cheers, including some from well-respected sustainability media outlets (here, here and here).

The news sparked conversation around Sustrana about the challenges of purchasing sustainably. Committing to sustainable purchasing is one thing. Finding products that don’t harm the planet and its people is quite another. For those looking to purchase the most sustainable products available, the idea sounded great - a badge to make that choice easier.  

We admire some aspects of Walmart’s program – after all, too few large retailers are taking on the responsibility of examining their supply chains to assess the practices of their suppliers. But when we looked a bit deeper into the program, we discovered some questions that are difficult to answer.

First, who are the “Sustainability Leaders” and what makes them sustainable? The designation is based on each company’s performance on the “Sustainability Index” – the scorecard developed by Walmart and the Sustainability Consortium (a non-profit, independent collective of companies that produce consumer products). The scorecard is based on suppliers’ responses to a survey, and Walmart rates the responses.

Unfortunately, the survey and the responses are proprietary and not yet available. So we don’t know what metrics Walmart is using, what the suppliers are reporting about their practices and products, and how Walmart grades the responses.  The information collected by Walmart from its suppliers forms a rich vein of sustainability performance from a variety of producers. We’re hoping that Walmart will find a way to make it (particularly the supplier reported data) publicly available.

Walmart says that the program’s goal is to provide important education to purchasers about their leadership group and to make their products easily identifiable. That’s a great goal, and one that we fully support. After years of collecting survey responses from numerous suppliers, Walmart is in an enviable position to contribute valuable educational information to purchasers. So our second question was, what educational information is Walmart making available?

The program covers certain product categories. For each category, Walmart provides a downloadable fact sheet prepared by the Sustainability Consortium that describes the environmental and social concerns and impacts that are associated with it (e.g., Electronics & Entertainment, Toys, Home, Clothing and Grocery). So far, so good.

Providing this information would be an excellent educational service, if the information were robust, relevant, and accurate. Instead, the “issue descriptions” are sometimes generic and vague (“Manufacturers should minimize material use….”).  As with the information on its suppliers’ performance, failing to provide information that could educate consumers about the many environmental and social impacts associated with products is a missed opportunity. We hope that as the Sustainability Leaders program matures, Walmart will seize this opportunity to provide more meaningful and detailed information. Educated consumers could, and should, be the lifeblood of Walmart’s overall efforts in promoting sustainable consumption.

Finally, we found ourselves wondering whether awarding a badge to a producer, rather than to the product itself, is really the best way to help consumers make smart choices.

Walmart notes that “[t[he Sustainability Leaders badge does not make representations about the environmental or social impact of an individual product, only that the manufacturer has scored well enough to earn a badge across all of the products they make in that category.” (emphasis is ours) This means that the badge is earned by the company, and Walmart then attaches it to every product made by that company in the product category, regardless of the product’s qualities.

The problem becomes obvious: just because a product is made by a company wearing a Sustainability Leader badge, that doesn’t make the product itself sustainable. Some of the products offered in the Sustainability Leaders shop have a pretty hard time fitting into anyone’s idea of a “sustainable product.”

Take disposable diapers for example. We know that disposable diapers generally do not degrade in a landfill – they take more than 500 years to break down. And yet they make up fully one third of the waste in US landfills (3.5 million pounds of them each year!). Placing a “Sustainability Leaders” badge on some conventional brands seems somewhat misleading. On the other hand, there are diapering systems, such as gDiapers, featuring washable, reusable cotton pants and a lining that is flushable, compostable, and Cradle-to-Cradle certified. Walmart doesn’t sell gDiapers (yet), but we’d like to see its Sustainability Leaders embrace and pursue this kind of innovation.

Purchasers want to know that the companies they are buying from are making an effort to produce sustainable products. The “Sustainability Leaders” badge is a step in that direction. But we think it’s more important to find and purchase a sustainable product first, and if you find none, then purchase from a company that’s working on becoming more sustainable. Increasing demand for sustainable products is the economic driver for change across the entire consumer products sector. With Walmart’s market strength, imagine what a force for change it could be if its customers had the information and resources they need to demand better products. The Sustainability Leaders program is helpful, but only partial step in that direction.

Want to know how to identify truly sustainable products made by sustainability leaders? Look for the labels and certifications we identified in our previous post on sustainability labels and certification programs. Now that’s information you can use every day.