Walmart Partners With Universities to Create Sustainability Index

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Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has just come one step closer to making the way it does business more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

A collaboration of NGOs, businesses, universities and the government is coming together to create the world’s first consumer sustainability index. The index will offer information concerning the sustainability of products sitting on Walmart shelves.

Photo: Treehugger.com

While several products may claim to be "natural" or "green," these terms can often be misleading for consumers. Photo: Treehugger.com

Dr. Jay Golden, co-director of the Sustainability Consortium spearheading the project, says that getting meaningful data from all levels of the supply chain is a large task, but obtaining such an inventory is crucial to understanding the lifecycle of products and their impacts on the environment from raw material to disposal.

As Mike Duke, president and CEO of Walmart asserts, “our use of natural resources for everything we grow, eat, drink, make, package, buy, transport and throw away […] is outpacing the earth’s capacity to sustain us.”

By creating a global database based on “sound science, sound engineering and, most important, transparency,” says Golden. “We can help reduce greenwashing, as well as answer the question, ‘What is a sustainable product?’”

Many consumer goods tout claims related to a products’ benefit to the environment or sustainability.

But 22 percent of products making green claims have an environmental label with no inherent meaning, and more than 98 percent of “natural” and “environmentally friendly” products are making potentially false or misleading claims, reports The Guardian.

The creation of the Sustainable Product Index for Consumer Products looks to rectify this problem by eventually providing consumers with a trustworthy and reliable label on which they can base decisions about what to purchase (according to a product’s sustainability rating).

Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas jointly administer the Sustainability Consortium, which runs the qualitative and quantitative data collection for the index’s development. It is also charged with educating consumers on how they use and dispose of products. This step recognizes that consumers have a large role to play in reducing the waste impact of the products they purchase.

According to Duke, it is not Walmart’s goal to create or own the index. “We want to spur the development of a common database that will allow the consortium to collect and analyze the knowledge of the global supply chain.”

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Buying products labeled "organic" is always a safe bet since it is regulated by the government. Photo: Walmart

In developing the Sustainable Product Index, the Sustainability Consortium team will start by examining four of the most purchased item categories at Walmart. These include:

  • Chemical intensive products and household cleaning products
  • Food and agriculture
  • Electronics
  • Textiles

Golden says over the next 12 months, these four product categories will be analyzed, and the index will start to take shape. Walmart predicts a five-year timeline for deployment of the index in various product categories.

By spurring corporations in its supply chain, as well as its consumers, to make business decisions and purchasing choices influenced by sustainability, Walmart representatives suggest that the Sustainable Product Index has the ability to:

  • Drive higher quality and lower costs.
  • Create more innovative products that lower carbon output and promote clean air and water.
  • Create a more transparent and responsible supply chain.
  • Bring Walmart closer to its customers and what they need to live better now and in the future.
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