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

Follow Sam Eaton at @eatonsam