Wal-Mart’s Green Labeling: the Challenges Ahead


Wal-Mart is taking big steps to give a measurable definition as to how green their products are with an initiative to put eco-labels on everything in their stores worldwide, from t-shirts to bicycles.

The idea is to give products a simple, standard rating that allows everyday shoppers to determine at a glance how sustainable a product is, similar to a nutritional label on food.

Understandably, this is a huge endeavor and many wonder if the megachain will be able to accomplish it. If it succeeds, this will change the future of retail forever and have an amazing impact on the culture of purchasing on the cheap.

Coral Rose, founder of Eco-Innovations and a former buyer at Wal-Mart, is a recognized sustainability strategist and eco-educator. A featured speaker and panelist on the subject of sustainable textiles, she’s also a member of the University of Delaware’s Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies Advisory Board (the first University graduate program in Socially Responsible and Sustainable Apparel Business).

Her own blog, Sustainable Action Leadership, is one of the most widely-read websites on sustainable textiles.

I caught up with her recently to see what she had to say about the proposed Wal-Mart green ratings system.

As a former buyer, and the first Wal-Mart associate to implement sustainable fabrics for the Sam’s Club division of Wal-Mart, what do you think about Wal-Marts new approach to figure out the full environmental costs of making their products and to create a green rating for shoppers?
Is this something they can actually make a reality?

Measuring the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of any one product is complex; measuring the LCA of 60,000 suppliers’ products (hundreds of thousands of actual products) is quite a bold goal. And then applying those LCA metrics to a label is quite a process. Labeling a product with a Sustainability Green Index will more than likely involve setting a standard with benchmarks for quantifiable and verifiable thresholds and then having that standard certified by a third party. That looks like where this might be heading.

Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index is in its infancy, with many of these core details still yet undetermined; that was the purpose for the multi-stakeholder group meeting last week in Bentonville. This will be a methodical multi-stakeholder initiative, with a phased approach. There will be clear metrics that will measure successes and opportunities; this will allow Wal-Mart to move forward with thoughtful velocity. The Sustainability Consortium jointly administered by the University of Arkansas and the University of Arizona will facilitate the process. My belief is that this is a project that will be phased in over the next few years.

I have been engaged in several industry-wide multi-stakeholder standards and labeling initiatives (third party-certified). The average timing for a process like this from conception to shelf is usually two to three years. We may see a few products hit the shelves earlier than that. We saw the Private Brand divisions presentation of “Great Value Sour Cream” during the meeting. Sustainable value process and product improvements were realized as they took a deep dive into dairy products.

Do you feel this has the potential to alter retail as we know it in a positive way?

Wal-Mart is taking the lead for the creation of a “global”sustainability/green index by which a product’s environmental and social impacts are measured – that in and of itself is ground-breaking.

The scalability that Wal-Mart brings to the table is one of gigantic global proportions. The fact is that Wal-Mart just might make the term LCA an everyday term understood and used by consumers. Now that would be quite a feat for such complex subject matter.

Measuring the environmental impacts of products is not a new concept: Patagonia with Footprint Chronicles, Timberland with their Green Index and Nike’s Nike Considered. All these companies have all been working on supply chain efficiencies and sustainability, while delivering a quality product to their consumers for  the better part of the last decade. So some consumers are familiar with this type of labeling already. Wal-Mart is taking a concept that exists today on a smaller scale to the masses.

What do you suspect will be some of their challenges?

There are many opportunities. One particular dual opportunity will be to create a user-friendly LCA product tool for merchants and suppliers. And on the consumer side, to create a label that encompasses those metrics for that product in the form of an easy-to-digest label. As simplified as the Energy Star label, but with scientific metrics certified by a third party.

Wal-Mart often gets a bad rap. You said in your piece in Future Fashion White Pages regarding buying for Wal-Mart, “I realized that by buying organic cotton instead of conventional cotton, my colleagues and I could improve the quality of life of millions of people. After that insight, how could I not do something?”

How has Wal-Mart evolved with a similar vision?

The core question when we first started this effort in 2004 was: Can you increase the value of a product and increase the sustainability of the value (supply) chain while keeping the product cost neutral?

The decision to buy organic cotton was a solid (values-driven) business decision. The goal was to source a product that was a better value for our member at price parity, thereby giving our members a better sustainable product for the same price as that of a conventional item. I would offer the member a product that was better in value, better environmentally and socially without compromising their expectation of a great quality product. The result was a product that outsold (by a large margin) any other product on the floor at that time.

Today, Wal-Mart is digging deep into the value chain to deliver on “Save More, Live Better.” A Sustainability Index will support and improve the lives of millions of people all around the world.

Do you feel you have you any part in the foundation of what they’re building from today?

From the onset, sustainability was always an internal and external collaborative team effort. Many “innovative and critical thinker” associates who formed the original Sustainable Value Networks continue to be at the forefront of this effort that we are hearing about now.

You said (in an interview posted on your blog) that supply chain transparency is “one of the basic tenets or “˜rules of engagement’ for any 21st-century business model.”

How are big box stores prepping themselves for having complete transparency with their shoppers and does that make them vulnerable?

Complete supply chain transparency is at the core of any LCA effort. Wal-Mart’s first large effort at giving consumers a glimpse into the supply chain has been the Love Earth Jewelry Line. The Sustainability Index will take the concept of transparency to an entirely new level.

Do you see this as a trend, this adherence to being responsible or just the way things have to and will be in the future when it comes to retail?

Business is changing rapidly. Fair Trade products, which define social responsibility, are a key barometer for measuring consumer’s adoption practices for responsibly-produced products. Despite a global recession, worldwide sales of Fair Trade products grew by 22% in 2008.

Today, the majority of products’ social and environmental impacts are hidden from our view – that is, the effects of a product’s social and environmental impacts (life cycle) before it hits the shelves and consumers’ hands. The average consumer is unaware of the global impacts of their decisions. Hidden from their sight is what lies upstream; all the impacts of growing, processing, manufacturing and transporting raw materials and component parts. Twentieth-century business practices have taught these professionals to focus only on what is downstream (production to consumer). Wal-Mart is now taking us into the 21st Century.

See Coral Rose’s post on “Looking Upstream: A New View of 21st Century Business Practices”.


Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.