Walmart, Kathleen McLaughlin, chief sustainability officer, sustainability, supply chains, retailer, fashion, apparel

With sustainable goals the priority in today’s business environment, retailers and brands know they can’t afford to let their suppliers get left behind.

But how does one of the largest retailers in the world, and one with 15 years in the sustainability reporting game, engage its vast network?

“Our vision is to provide the practical connection staircase — the escalator of ambition — that links big global goals, like Paris Agreement or the need to get back to 30 percent of the plant restored for nature [a goal known as “30 by 30”], to actions we can take that affect our daily lives as human beings in communities; the food we eat, the clothing we wear, household goods,” Walmart’s chief sustainability officer, Kathleen McLaughlin, said at The Economist’s sustainability event last week.

McLaughlin shared the reality that to some suppliers, the word “greenhouse” recalls an image of the glass structure for growing plants versus greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainability expertise varies widely among suppliers and many still lack the urgency, or ability, to act.

A few years ago, Walmart started partnering with HSBC providing financial incentives to suppliers working toward creating a more sustainable supply chain.

Saying “shared value” must live at the crux of sustainability programs for change to happen at the rate needed, McLaughlin said communicating the immediate cost savings as well as “intangible benefits of customer reputation,” are what moves suppliers forward.

Now, Walmart has 3,100 suppliers “actively engaged” in its sustainability program. Over the years, 375 million metrics tons of carbon emissions have been avoided. In a few weeks, the statistic will be updated in Walmart’s upcoming ESG report.

Ultimately, “elevating ambition” is crucial in cutting Scope 3 (indirect) emissions according to McLaughlin. Setting science-based targets (with the Science Based Targets Initiative, SBTi) or disclosing with the Carbon Disclosure Project is “really where we want things to go.”

McLaughlin stressed collaboration as a means of creating “broader systemic change,” but for those just getting started, it’s best to begin with cost-saving switches — like waste and packaging reduction or energy efficiency.

“We need to get to a place where not only are we managing consumption but the things we are consuming are produced and used in circular, sustainable and regenerative ways,” McLaughlin said. “That’s really the vision — that we can decouple consumption from impacting the planet, that we can decouple growth from impact on the planet.”


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