As the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has substantial power in the marketplace, and has set goals to improve its sustainability efforts. But the firm said its reach alone is not enough to make major changes for the environment.
“We do have a large scope and scale, which puts us in a really strong position to lead on a lot of initiatives, but we can't do that without collaboration,” said Jeff Rice, sustainability director for the Bentonville, Ark.-based firm.
At the Wal-Mart Sustainable Packaging Conference, held June 22 in Toronto, Rice said some studies indicate 80 percent of a company's environmental impact comes from its supply chain, rather than solely its own in-house efforts.
While switching to compact fluorescent lighting in stores may make a difference, real change requires cooperation down the entire supply chain. That's why thrifty companies including Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble Co. and other major retailers, consumer goods firms and packaging makers — all members of the Sustainability Consortium's global packaging group — are zeroing in on what they mean when they talk about the environment and how to make changes that are needed.
“Sustainability can be complex, and that's why we need this common language. What we're really after here is a single global framework and measurement system for our industry and the supply chain,” said Alan Blake, associate director of global packaging development for P&G of Cincinnati.
The group is developing standards to measure and test environmental claims.
“We don't want to have every group have to reinvent the wheel,” said Kelly Scott, manager of the consortium's packaging group.
The group is identifying issues that impact different products, such as end-of-use issues like recyclability and reuse, or those that crop up during manufacturing of packaging — such as spillage or potential damage to the contents. The group also is looking at shipping and distribution, as well as issues related to bio-based materials.
In its own in-house life-cycle assessments, Wal-Mart tracked one item, a private-label soap, through seven tiers of its supply chain. Using common rules and measurements will make it easier for companies in the chain to understand how something affects the environment. It also will help trouble areas stand out so companies can address them.
That, in turn, makes it easier for brand owners and packaging makers to get new products through retailers' doors and in front of customers.
Blake pointed out potential changes a firm like P&G could make to a common product such as laundry detergent. Some changes could be as simple as reducing the amount of high density polyethylene used in the bottle. Brand owner and retailer could use one measurement within packaging guidelines to quickly determine benefits as well as risks for such a switch.
Other, more-complex changes could include using HDPE made from sugar cane, Blake said. That switch would cover 34 different areas of measurement from the guidelines; but, with the entire supply chain knowing what questions needed to be answered, the process toward approval or rejection could be streamlined.
“The great thing about the protocol is it gives you a definition of every attribute and indicator. Then it gives you a metric and tells you what to measure, how to measure and what not to measure,” he said.
In 2010, the groups tested the guidelines: P&G was with customers Wal-Mart and Kroger Co.
“We need to have common rules ... so that our choices are science-driven and not emotionally driven,” Rice said.
The consortium has not yet set any requirements or deadlines.