Wal-Mart to gauge 'green' products

Wal-Mart employee Barbara Kokensparger scans clothing items at a store in Bowling Green, Ohio.


Kai Ryssdal: Four years ago Wal-Mart decided it was going to go green. And whatever progress the world's biggest retailer may have made in reducing its environmental footprint, it's still the world's biggest retailer. Which is to say, it's still got a really big environmental footprint. Tomorrow the company is going to announce its latest sustainability initiative. This one won't be cutting down on energy use or reducing packaging waste. It's the whole global supply chain, measuring the environmental and social costs of every product that hits its shelves. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.

SAM EATON: Over the last few years Wal-Mart's attempt to create environmentally friendly stores has saved the company money while boosting its image as an eco-conscious retailer. But University of Arkansas sustainability professor Jon Johnson says the environmental benefits of those efforts are small for this reason:

JON JOHNSON: Best estimates are about 90-percent of their environmental footprint resides outside of the company's boundaries in the supply chain.

That's why Wal-Mart now wants its 60,000 suppliers to provide details on everything from the energy they consume, to how the natural resources in their products are extracted. That information, along with how the items are used and disposed of, will be summarized on new product labels. Something Andrew Hutson of the Environmental Defense Fund calls a game changer.

ANDREW HUTSON: It's a shift in the way that we define consumerism. It's no longer just about the product. What it does and how much it costs. But it's pretty much now about the whole system of global commerce that goes into each product.

How Wal-Mart determines whether its products are sustainable is another issue. Tyson Slocum with the consumer watchdog group, Public Citizen, say the potential for green washing is huge.

TYSON SLOCUM: I'm not sure that it's appropriate for a giant retailer like Wal-Mart to be crafting these definitions. I think we got to have an unbiased source.

Like the federal government. But Andrew Hutson at Environmental Defense says Wal-Mart's inclusion of universities, manufacturers and competing retailers in the process gives the initiative credibility.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.
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Why create yet another measure/standard that will take years to implement and just add to the existing consumre eco-labeling confusion? What consumers need is transparency, education and knowledge, which is the responsibility of the manufacturers to deliver. Manufacturers need to tell the back story behind not only the eco-label, but the product, materials and company as well. This will stimulate real knowledge transfer and lead to brand loyal customers.

Chris Glennon
JumpGauge Interactive Labeling

I agree with Ap from TN that manugacture closer to point of sale would be "greener". If WalMart decides to weigh the cost of manufacture overseas versus the cost of domestic manufacture amd what that means for its triple bottom line (environmental, economic and social), then its likely that other large retailers will follow suit and come full circle. Now that'd be GREEN!

I would be very interested to see what portion of the total embodied energy of a product would be due to transportaion (basically, from China to US) to the point of sale. My guess is that it would be very significant for relatively less energy-intensive products (clothes, toys, etc.).

The only way to cut bank on energy expended for transportaiton is by manufacturing products closer to the point of sale (i.e. US). The Chinese may not like that, but it'll mean more jobs in the US and less pollution. Isn't that green?

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