Opening Lines: Who’s the Greenest of Them All?
Wal-Mart seeks to Rank Brands on SustainabilityBy Jennifer Kwok, Editor
It was big news in July when Wal-Mart announced its plan to launch a worldwide sustainability index. (See the news brief in this issue.) The ultimate goal of this index is to develop a system to rank the eco-friendliness of all products sold in Wal-Mart stores. Eventually, Wal-Mart will require that all product labels include a green ranking so that customers will have a more standardized way of determining how sustainable a product really is. Or, simply put, to cut through some of the greenwashing that has threatened to take us over.
Wal-Mart says that this sustainability index differs from its 2006-launched Packaging Scorecard, which focused only on packaging, and not the products inside. By contrast, the new sustainability index “will encompass the life cycle of a product, not just one specific area,” a Wal-Mart rep told me.
Will all of these scorecards, which sound so good in a press release, be able to enact real green change? It’s the sort of question that everyone—optimists and cynics alike—love to ask about such a grand plan. Search online and other questions abound as well, such as whether a for-profit retailer such as Wal-Mart should be the entity (rather than an independent, nonprofit group) setting green standards. Is Wal-Mart playing Green God?
Wal-Mart says that it doesn’t plan to develop the index standards alone. Rather, it is assembling a group of universities that will collaborate with suppliers, retailers, NGOs, and government to develop the database. Wal-Mart will initially fund the index but hopes to turn it over to a consortium to manage. “It is not our goal to create or own this index,” said Mike Duke, Wal-Mart’s president and CEO. “We want to spur the development of a common database that will allow the consortium to collect and analyze the knowledge of the global supply chain.”
My biggest question regarding the new sustainability index—and even the older Packaging Scorecard—is whether it is possible to rank one company’s green practices against another’s. From what I’ve seen in the beauty packaging industry, businesses have only just begun to learn about, understand, and evaluate the sustainability of their manufacturing processes. Suppliers and beauty brands have just started exploring green technologies and materials. Are these companies in a position to accurately and truthfully analyze their own sustainability practices? And, in a recession, do they even have the resources to do so?
Also, is it possible to say that one practice is greener than another—especially in light of the fact that conditions are continually changing? For instance, bioplastics might be controversial today, due to a lack of recycling infrastructure. But should that infrastructure change, bioplastics might become a greener option than others. Perhaps the consortium plans to find a way to adjust the index for such changes. I am not sure. I guess that one good thing to come out of these scorecards is that companies that are abysmally not green will stand out—and be forced somehow to change their ways.
There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding Wal-Mart’s plans, but one thing can be said for sure. It will be years before we can determine whether this incredibly ambitious, complex plan did anybody any good.