The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

October 16, 2009

Hey Wal-Mart! I See Glaring Omissions in Your New Sustainability Index

Wal-MartDear Wal-Mart,

Let me apologize in advance for any sarcasm you might detect in this letter. It’s late, and I’ve been losing sleep for about two years, basically working for free to wake people up to the environmental crises we face. So you can imagine that I’m a little bit cranky. And maybe just a little bit jaded by big box companies that profess to be going green, when “Big Box” seems to be the antithesis of green.

Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart. You are big and muscly. And now you want to use your muscle to demand sustainable practices from your vendors. You have created a brand new Sustainability Index (PDF), despite the fact that many third party standards already exist.

But what are the standards you are pushing? And who gets to decide what they should be?

Your new Sustainability Index… oh, sorry.  It’s not Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index.  It belongs to the world.  According to Rand Waddoups, your senior director for sustainability during a your web cast last month,

We want this to turn into something that is far bigger than Walmart, far more important than any one company.  We announced it to the world so we could call on the world to join the effort; you have to call on the world to join the effort to develop the effort so they have ownership of it.

Um… if this new index belongs to the world, why does it cost $100,000 to $250,000 per year for a seat on the advisory council of the new Sustainability Consortium?  Oh, I see.  There are tiers.  Tier II business members may pay only $25,000 to $50,000 per year to join.  But what about the nonprofit organizations that have already been working hard to create the sustainable standards that we shoppers rely on?  Oh, they can join for $10,000/year.  For that price, they get no seat on any working committee.  Do they really have a voice?

And what about the most important group of all?  The people who actually buy your products.  The individuals who have the most to lose from cheap lead-coated plastic crap.  Do they get a say?  Evidently not.  So I guess by “world” you mean those with money, which actually excludes most of it.

As I was saying, your Sustainability Index, at this point, consists of 15 questions (listed at the bottom of this post) you are requiring your 100,000 suppliers to answer. Well, okay. They don’t HAVE to answer them. But those who do get to sit at the head of the class, right?   I realize I wasn’t invited, but I’d like to have some say in which companies are awarded that coveted position.

Give us REAL transparency.

Personal Care ProductsYour web site states that with this initiative, you are helping create a more transparent supply chain. If that’s true, why doesn’t your questionnaire ask about full disclosure of ingredients in products?  According to Matthew Wheeland’s report on

…proprietary information will not necessarily need to be shared; Waddoups described that as one of his key concerns entering into the Sustainability Index project, and said that the Consortium has come up with “some really exciting, simple and effective means” to get the environmental-impact data they want without sharing proprietary data.

Yeah?  As a consumer, how can I possibly know that a product is safe if I don’t know what’s in it?  There are so many hidden sources of toxic chemicals which are not required by law to be disclosed on labels.  Frangrances, for example, often contain phthalates.  And yet manufacturers do not have to list the ingredients in those fragrances.  And in fact, according to a PR rep from P&G  I spoke to recently, manufacturers often source their fragrances from third parties and don’t even know themselves what those ingredients are!

I appreciate that your Question #9 asks whether the vendor has established “publicly available sustainability purchasing guidelines… that address issues such as… ingredient safety.” But who is defining “safety”? Bisphenol-A is still legal and considered safe by the FDA. Phthalates are still legal and used in almost all scented products. There are thousands of chemicals in products on the market today that have never been tested for safety in the first place. The government is not protecting us. And without knowing exactly what ingredients are in the products we purchase, consumers have no way to protect ourselves.

Oh, and one more thing… when I say “ingredients,” I don’t just mean the ingredients intentionally added to the product itself but those which could leach from plastic containers and packaging. I want full disclosure of the chemicals used in any plastic bottles, bags, and containers that come into contact with food or personal care products. You know, while we’re being transparent and everything.

Cut more packaging waste!

Meat wrapped in PVCSpeaking of packaging, I want less of it. I appreciate that Questions #5 and #6 ask about waste reduction levels at manufacturing facilities. And I also appreciate your recent commitment to reduce packaging by 5% by 2013. But 5% is not enough. And switching from PVC to PET is not enough. Are you willing to take back the remaining 95% of packaging NOW?

Labeling packaging as recyclable is not good enough if there are no markets or recycling facilities to handle the packaging waste. Will you ask your vendors to follow the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility and create systems for reusing/recycling the packaging materials they do use? As a corporate citizen of the world, can you help lift the burden on communities to deal with the mess created by companies that fail to consider the full life cycle of their products?

And will you prefer bio-based packaging materials over plastics, which last virtually forever in the environment and cause harm to wildlife and humans alike? Especially when it comes to food and personal care products packaging, plastic is not the healthy alternative. While it might be lighter to ship, the chemicals that can leach from all plastics from containers to food and ultimately our bodies do not support the environment. All plastics are the products of a highly polluting petro-chemical industry that harms communities and eco-systems. Please get the plastic out of packaging.

Oh, and Wal-Mart, I read on your packaging page that you still have not found a suitable alternative to PVC for wrapping meat. I find that kind of hard to believe (my local butcher uses butcher paper), but if that really is the case, maybe you should just stop selling meat until you find a safer way to wrap it.

Look at the environmental impact of the product itself.

AquafinaWal-Mart, are you willing to evaluate the environmental impact of entire classes of products and eliminate the worst offenders entirely? One example that comes to mind is bottled water. I don’t care about comparing the carbon footprint of one bottled water company to another when the product itself is unnecessary and damaging to the planet. Extracting, bottling, and shipping water harms eco-systems, increases greenhouse gas emissions, supports the toxic petro-chemical industries, drains water resources from communities, creates tremendous amounts of waste, and privatizes a public resource that should be clean and cheap for everyone.

What if instead of measuring bottled water companies against one another, Wal-Mart instead created incentives for vendors offering healthy alternatives. Reusable bottles. Water filters. An area of the store where customers could fill up with the local water and incentives for customers to do so? I guess what I’m saying is that I want you to create a sustainability standard that rewards companies for original thinking, for coming up with alternatives to the status quo, rather than simply trying to make the status quo just a bit more green.

Thanks for listening, Wal-Mart. I have plenty more ideas. For instance I notice that your Sustainability Index doesn’t address the treatment of animals at all. And I’m sure your many customers have ideas I haven’t thought of. Will you create a forum for them to participate in creating your sustainability index? It’s only fair, seeing as how you are taking over the world and putting so many local companies out of business.

Once again, I’m sorry if my sarcasm is unwarranted. I guess I just don’t have much faith that you have any interest in listening to the “little guys.” Will you prove me wrong?

Beth Terry
Oakland, CA

This post is part of the Green Moms Carnival whose topic this month is Standards. Hosted on Mary Hunt’s excellent blog In Women We Trust, the carnival was inspired by Wal-Mart’s announcement of its Sustainability Index, which may not be an official standard but sure looks like it wants to take the place of a few of them.

Wal-Mart’s 15 Questions

Energy and Climate
1.) Have you measured and taken steps to reduce your corporate greenhouse gas emissions?
2.) Have you opted to report your greenhouse gas emissions and climate change strategy to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP)?
3.)What are your total annual greenhouse gas emissions in the most recent year measured?
4.) Have you set publicly available greenhouse gas reduction targets? If yes, what are those targets? By what date do you plan to have these targets implemented?

Material Efficiency
5.) Have you measured the total amount of solid waste generated from the facilities that produce your product(s) for Wal-Mart for the most recent year? If measured, please report the total amount of solid waste generated from the facilities that produce your product(s) for Wal-Mart for the most recent year measured. (Enter total lbs.)
6.) Have you set publicly available solid waste reduction targets? If yes, what are those targets? (Enter total lbs.) By what date do you plan to have those targets implemented?
7.) Have you measured your total water use from facilities that produce your product(s) for Wal-Mart for the most recent year? If yes, what were your measurements? (Enter total gallons)
8.) Have you set publicly available water use reduction targets? If yes, what are those targets? (Enter total gallons) By what date do you plan to have those targets implemented?

Nature and Resources
9.) Have you established publicly available sustainability purchasing guidelines for your direct suppliers that address issues such as environmental compliance, employment practices and product/ingredient safety?
10.) Have you obtained 3rd party certifications for any of the products that you sell to Wal-Mart? If so, from the list of certifications below, please select those for which any of your products are, or utilize materials that are, currently certified. (If you haven’t obtained any 3rd party certifications, leave this area blank).

Marine Stewardship Council
Aquaculture Certification Council
National Organic Council
Protected Harvest
Energy Star (EPA)
Electronic Product Assessment
Tool (EPEAT) – Silver or Gold
Green Seal
Ecologo (Environment Canada/Terra Choice)
Design for the Environment (EPA)
WaterSense (EPA)
Forest Stewardship Council
Sustainable Forestry Initiative
National Standard for Sustainable Forest Management (Canadian Standards Program)
Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification
Global Organic Textile Standard
Rainforest Alliance
TransFair USA (Fair Trade)

People and Community
11.) Do you know the location of 100% of the facilities that produce your product(s)?
12.) Before beginning a business relationship with a manufacturing facility, do you evaluate their quality of production and capacity for production?
13.) Do you have a process for managing social compliance at the manufacturing level?
14.) Do you work with your supply base to resolve issues found during social compliance evaluations and also document specific corrections and improvements?
15.) Do you invest in community development activities in the markets you source from and/or operate within?

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Reenie Rogers
13 years ago

Great!~I get cranky a lot about some of this too, and am so glad you are working on the environment. Wal Mart is a big snarfler, excuse my spelling if its wrong. I read Ecological Intelligence this year, and when I heard Wal Mart’s index I started comparing wal mart’s index with the way Daniel Goleman has recommended that consumer’s rate a product. We need to become grown up consumers. Arise. Awake, and find out what it is we are buying, using, eating, giving to our children.

Wal Mart willfully disregards the aspect of “health” when it comes to products. As you say, Beth, WM isn’t going to bother about whether ingredients are disclosed or not. This is a very sore spot and consumers are going to have to figure out a way convince companies they buy from that they MUST HAVE full disclosure on what’s in every single thing they give their money for.

Thanks for this wonderful website!

13 years ago

Great post Beth! Wal-Mart would have to change so much before I was willing to shop there. They have so much power it would be great if they used it for good. But yet again this seems very green washed.

Katy at Non-Toxic Kids
13 years ago

Yeah, Beth! Great article, and I couldn’t agree more. Specifically thinking of stopping the sale of bottled water– what a sustainability statement THAT would make. It would make paying 250,000 smackers for a seat at the table small potoatoes (well, not really). It would be truly brave and righteous.

And I’m am so sick of proprietary formulas for this and that. How is it okay that we have no idea what toxic junk is in our products? Sigg is a perfect example.

I’m glad you had this late night rant!


13 years ago

You’re a tough customer, Beth. Even if they cleaned up their environmental act, I wouldn’t shop there, so I can’t justify asking them to fix anything. It does concern me that their TV advertising is so persuasive.

Anna @Green Talk
13 years ago

As always, Beth, you hit the nail on the head. Walmart (excuse me not their index)…The world’s index is basically who can pay to be at the table. Is that a pay to play type standard?

Nick Palmer
13 years ago

I think the questions themselves aren’t too bad although they definitely need extra depth and more dimensions as Beth suggests.

Where such a sustainability initiative falls down is that it is not prescriptive.

If Walmart stated that they absolutely would not deal with any supplier who was not developing plans to, say, reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (and all other environmentally damaging practices) by, say, 15% a year for 15 years (would get us down to about 9% of current levels), then that would have a huge and almost instant effect on a large part of the manufacturing industries, particularly if other large retailers adopted a similar strong position.

A somewhat less drastic position would be if Walmart “added” the environmental externalities onto the price of all items. A good start would be to add the embodied carbon to the price ticket using a suitable price per tonne like the carbon cap and trade markets are working out.

13 years ago

I hope you actually sent that letter, I would have…..and I think I’ll write my own right now.

13 years ago

I agree, I hope you sent it to Wal-Mart.

13 years ago

I can understand why you’re cranky. You’re totally justified. Wal-Mart is the antithesis of sustainability.

I hope you know how very valuable your voice is. And I hope you get some much-needed rest.

13 years ago

Great article. The Sustainability Index has gotten so much positive press, and it’s good to see another perspective. Walmart has the potential to have so much impact with this, if it could be done right. As it stands now, their questions really only scratch the surface.

13 years ago

Uhh – I hope you actually sent that to them, b/c it’s brill. Their ?’s are a lot of BS. Just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Basically, it will do more harm than good because manufacturers can jump on their phony band wagon and who knows – the public will probably laud all of them as environmental stewards. We don’t need reasons to feel good about shopping at Wal-mart and their ilk. We need it to actually BE good.

Lynn from
13 years ago


Stay up late! We need more cranky activists! Seriously, you’ve done a great job of laying out some of the “overlooked” areas of this Sustainability Index. This index is all about reducing costs in the name of “greenness.” That’s fine, but what about going the extra mile…eliminating unnecessary plastics, phasing out endocrine disrupting chemicals, BPA, formaldehyde and more, and yes, bring back the butcher paper! We survived before all of these plastics, we can make our way back again…


Linda Anderson
13 years ago

There is nothing wrong with a little sarcasm. It’s a great way to get the point across. I hope Wally World listens.

Karhy G
13 years ago

Thanks for putting this out there.

Wal-Mart just opened a “green” supercenter near our house (whatever that means). Since I won’t be shopping there, I guess I’ll never know :-)

13 years ago

13.) Do you have a process for managing social compliance at the manufacturing level?

How ’bout straight-up asking “are we buying slave labor products?” It’s pretty damned rich for the biggest union buster on the planet to talk about “social compliance” in its supply chain. Let’s go for some “social responsibility” instead!

It strikes me a shockingly similar to the old Segregation-era euphamism of “social equality” as a substitute for “social integration.”

mother earth aka karen hanrahan
13 years ago

wow beth, now I’M cranky!! What a thorough provocative inquiry.