Caption Former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno left interviews Robert Kaplan Walmartrsquos director of sustainability middle and Rick Tolman right National Corn Growers Association on the topic of sustainability at the Bayer CropSciencersquos 8th Annual Ag Issues ForumPhoto Credit Jodie Wehrspann

Caption: Former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno (left) interviews Robert Kaplan, Walmart’s director of sustainability (middle), and Rick Tolman (right), National Corn Growers Association, on the topic of sustainability at the Bayer CropScience’s 8th Annual Ag Issues Forum.
Photo Credit: Jodie Wehrspann

Walmart’s Sustainability scorecard: How do you measure up?

Last week Robert Kaplan, director of sustainability for Walmart, announced he was moving on after four years of promoting sustainability at the world’s largest retailer. In his farewell letter, Kaplan outlined some of the achievements Walmart made during that time. Among them:

-Eliminated nearly 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas;

-Collaborated with Target, one of its biggest competitors, to bring more sustainable personal care and beauty products to the shelf; and,

-Launched the Sustainability Leaders Shop, an online marketplace to help customers incorporate sustainability into their purchasing decisions

Caption: Former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno (left) interviews Robert Kaplan, Walmart’s director of sustainability (middle), and Rick Tolman (right), National Corn Growers Association, on the topic of sustainability at the Bayer CropScience’s 8th Annual Ag Issues Forum. Photo Credit: Jodie Wehrspann

We first met Kaplan in March 2013 at Bayer CropScience’s 8th Annual Ag Issues Forum, where he spoke on how Walmart was working to meet consumer demand for sustainable products. He said meeting that demand required collaboration up and down the food supply chain, starting with the farmers that grow the crops.

Sharing the stage with Kaplan was Rick Tolman of The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), who underscored farmers’ stake in that. “Farmers can’t ignore sustainability, and need to tell the sustainability story,” Tolman said. “It’s an opportunity to start to differentiate themselves. Farmers who have land have the desire to pass it on to family. They want to leave it in better shape for future generations.”

Hard to find anyone who doesn’t agree with that, right? But how do you move the needle? And how do you measure sustainability in the first place? That’s what the sustainability team at Walmart tried to tackle.

In 2009, Walmart came up with what it calls the Sustainability Index, which Walmart uses to identify and reward suppliers who are using sustainable production practices. We wrote about this here. 

The Sustainability Index consists of 16 questions that suppliers are asked to answer (note: this is all voluntary) on topics covering issues of greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste, water use, community development activities, environmental compliance and employment practices. Based on those answers, Walmart rates suppliers as above target, on target, or below target.   

Kaplan and his team used those numbers to help develop the Walmart Sustainability Leaders shop, a website where consumers can go to find products made by companies that scored high on Walmart’s Sustainability Index. These companies are identified with a “Sustainability Leaders” badge. 

I clicked on the category of “Grocery” products and then on “corn syrup” and found which indicators define its sustainable production and which companies are credited for producing it sustainably. Farmers are asked to measure inputs like fertilizer, nutrients, land, soil, pesticides, water, energy, labor and packaging.

Whether you are the consumer or the supplier, I think you’ll find the whole process pretty interesting. And it gives some meaning and direction to sustainability, a word that can sound so elusive, at least to me. For that, I say thank you, Kaplan, and the rest of the sustainability team at Walmart.

Read more blogs from Jodie Wehrspann.

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