It goes without saying that as the world’s largest retailer and number-one seller of apparel, Walmart Inc. produces a lot of waste and uses lots of resources. But since the mid Aughts, the Bentonville, Ark.-based giant has been taking steps to reposition itself as a champion of sustainability.
During its era of huge supercenters, the retail giant was getting blowback from local and state governments, consumers and activists who cited the sprawl of stores, pollution caused by its enormous transportation fleet, and energy used to operate its stores.
The company has long been a target of environmental organizations and human rights groups.
In 2005, H. Lee Scott, Walmart’s chief executive officer at the time, outlined three sustainability goals for the company: to be 100 percent supplied by renewable energy, create zero waste and sell greener products. Scott several years later expanded Walmart’s sustainable initiatives to include sourcing and supply chain, and became the face of the company’s kinder, more conscious side.
Doug McMillon, who in 2014 took the reins, has expanded and iterated on the work Scott started, making sustainability a mission and cornerstone of the company’s transformation to a multiplatform digital brand. McMillon, more than any of his predecessors, knew how far positive sentiment would go toward building loyalty and sales.
That’s not to say that McMillon didn’t have public relations debacles under his watch. Walmart labels in 2013 were found on apparel after a deadly fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh. The retailer also was under a microscope with a five-year investigation for violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act in countries such as Mexico, China and Brazil.
President and ceo McMillon has been vocal about the retail behemoth’s role in society on regarding the environment and humanitarian issues and said he was ushering in a “new era of trust and transparency.” McMillon added new commitments to Walmart’s sustainability agenda that he said reflect a wider recognition of the company’s impact on communities and the planet.
The retailer said that by working with others, it aspires to reshape the way it works to achieve significant and lasting improvement in environmental and social outcomes, in a way that also improves its business. Here, a partial list of Walmart’s progress.
2009: Introduced Sustainability Index to establish baseline and track progress against that goal. Index gathers and analyzes information across product’s life cycle, including sourcing, manufacturing, transporting, purchasing and customer usage through end of use. Walmart uses data to identify key social and environmental hot spots and work with suppliers to make improvements.
2011: Launched ambitious program in collaboration with the Partnership for a Healthier America to provide customers with healthier and more affordable food choices.
2012: Committed to buying 70 percent of goods sold in U.S. stores and clubs from suppliers participating in Sustainability Index program. More than 3,000 more suppliers registered by July 2017.
2013: Launched Project Gigaton with the goal of avoiding one billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from global value chain by 2030.
2015: Walmart and Walmart Foundation commit to support nutrition education programs for 4 million people through 2020.
2017: Diverted from landfills 81 percent of unsold products, packaging and other waste materials in the U.S., and 78 percent globally.
When it comes to apparel, a company spokeswoman said, “Walmart is supporting efforts across the textile value chain to help improve sustainability while delivering high-quality apparel, towels and other fabric products.”
Among the programs and initiatives are hot spots for cotton cultivation, including climate change, resource depletion and traceability. “We have been working with stakeholders across the industry, including Field to Market, our suppliers, and Cotton LEADS, to learn more about the issues facing cotton and the potential approaches to create system change all the way back to the cotton field,” the spokeswoman said.
Fabric mills are hot spots for energy, chemical use, and water, and fabric drives a big proportion of the embedded cost of textile products. Walmart was inspired by its participation in the Natural Resource Defense Council’s successful Clean by Design program in China to launch in October 2016 the Mill Sustainability Program with 10 suppliers and their mill partners to improve environmental-impact areas of mills.
As part of the program, suppliers and mills agree to baseline their performance using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s widely accepted Higg Index Facility Environmental Module (FEM) and participate in Walmart’s expert-led workshops on practical steps to reduce costs. “By collecting facility-level data, the Higg Index FEM provides benchmarking and lays the groundwork to set actionable goals and measure future improvement,” the Walmart spokeswoman said. “So far, suppliers in the program represent more than 40 percent of our U.S. sales for apparel and home textiles.
“With sustainable apparel products at Every Day Low True Costs (EDLTC), we address textile hot spots and challenge our suppliers to deliver products that are more sustainable, without raising the price,” she said, adding that the delivery of each Every Day Low True Costs item should inspire other suppliers to deliver quality, sustainable apparel.
Examples of clothing that falls into the EDLTC category includes Hanes Max Cushion Crew Socks, made with 20 percent recycled Repreve polyester in an efficient facility that gets an average 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources.
Intradeco Women’s T-Shirts are made by one of Walmart’s leading apparel suppliers. The retailer challenged itself and asked Intradeco to significantly improve the sustainability of its $4.88 ladies T-shirt — without raising the price. Since the cotton used in the T-shirt is traceable to the Mississippi Delta, Intradeco now reuses 30 percent of the water used during the manufacturing process. The T-shirt is now made using nearly 50 percent renewable energy.
Another Intradeco item, a men’s Swiss Tech Polo, is now made with a minimum of 40 percent recycled polyester and care instructions were rewritten to direct customers to wash it in cold water.
While the small informational hangtags that give consumers care instructions for many of Walmart’s apparel items may seem unlikely to contribute to the loss of forests, nothing that Walmart does is on a small scale and products sell in the millions. A few years ago, Walmart began to transition from private-label paper hangtags to 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council-certified paperboard. So far, transitioned brands include No Boundaries, Secret Treasures and Athletic Works. “Since we rolled out the packaging change, over 515 million units have moved to the new labels,” the spokeswoman said.
Walmart has placed a special focus on factory energy efficiency in China, where its initiative complements the Chinese government’s five-year goal of reducing energy intensity by 15 percent by 2020. The retailer as of September 2017 reached this goal with 71.2 percent of its factories enrolled in the program. Since then, another 800 factories have joined, and the program saved $39.2 million in operating expenses and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 244,000 metric tons annually.