Walmart's absolute carbon footprint grows, despite sustainability leadership

There are certain companies that all students of corporate sustainability or green business initiatives MUST watch, and one of those is giant retailer Walmart.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

There are certain companies that all students of corporate sustainability or green business initiatives MUST watch, and one of those is giant retailer Walmart. For me, Walmart is important for two big reasons: First, because its enormous size means that even the tiny things it does will have a major impact on the planet and, second, because its leadership is pulling its suppliers and business partners along for the sustainability ride.

So, here's the good news, according to its 2010 Global Sustainability Report, Walmart continued to make serious progress against its three chief goals, which are: to create a corporate structure that is 100 percent supplied by renewable energy, to strive for zero waste operations, and to sell products and goods in its stores that help people at large contribute to the planet's sustainability. An example of how the latter might impact you and your neighbors in the United States: Walmart estimates that by selling 250 million compact fluorescent bulbs, it could save customers $13 billion over the life of the bulbs.

One big highlight in terms of successes: over the past five years, Walmart has improved the efficiency of its fleet by 60 percent. It hopes to double its efficiency again over the next five years. The company also has made strides in terms of the opening prototype stores and facilities for energy efficiency in every market it serves. It expects to share information about these design up and down its supply chain.

Walmart also reported that its carbon emissions as a percentage of sales went down over the past reporting period. Good news. The bad news is that its absolution carbon footprint continued to grow over the last reporting period. Here's the very reasonable perspective (justification) from the report:

"Despite our ongoing reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, as measured by GHG emissions per million dollar sales, our company’s absolute GHG footprint continues to rise as we expand our reach to help more people access affordable, quality, and sustainable goods and groceries. Recognizing the importance of absolute GHG reductions, we recently announced a new goal to eliminate 20 million metric tons of GHG emissions from our global supply chain by the end of 2015. This represents one and a half times our anticipated cumulative carbon footprint growth over the next five years. Because the Walmart supply system is many times larger than the company’s direct footprint, in many cases the biggest, fastest and most economical GHG reductions are not at the retail-level, but rather up or down the value-chain of consumer products, in raw material extraction, product manufacturing, transportation, customer use, or product end-of-life."

I would like to commend Walmart for highlighting its absolute footprint in such detail in the first place, because it points up the fact that this sustainability and footprint reduction stuff is much harder to pull off in practice than it is in theory. Because for every goal a company sets, it must remember that it alone doesn't control that goal, it will be beholden to all its supply chain partners. Something to keep in mind as you steer the sustainability ship.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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