Image: Courtesy of Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart embodies truths and prejudices that reflect our consumer culture. They are a straw-man for a lot of what is wrong. But, especially in recent years, they are a powerful potential leader in trying to be right. Thanks to some networking by our fearless leader, Graham Hill, TreeHugger had an opportunity to speak at some length with Raul Vazquez, CEO of the growing eCommerce powerhouse walmart.com.
We hear from his own mouth how walmart.com will implement the sustainability index being developed in cooperation with respected Universities and NGOs, whether walmart.com is out to take Amazon down, and how business on-line is developing for the retail giant.TreeHugger: What criteria does a product have to meet to make it into the "earth-friendly" products featured in Walmart.com's Green Living?
Raul Vazquez: Our intent is to follow an approach that is similar to the one we seek for the Index - to use life-cycle analysis (LCA) which will rate items from a "whole system" perspective looking at resource extraction to end of life.
The criteria for getting items into this year's campaign is still to be announced but will most likely be very close to the below with minor modifications.
Waste & Recycling
- Design - Intelligently reuses materials that would normally have become trash Packaging - Has dramatic, visible packaging improvements End of Life - Helps customers reuse or avoid what would normally become trash
- Raw materials - Uses materials or processes certified by a Wal-Mart/Sam's Club recognized environmentally focused certification Ingredients - Removes ingredients that are harmful to the environment that are standard in their product categories
- Manufacture - The manufacturing process uses renewable energy (must include more than just purchasing offsets/credits) Product use - Uses substantially less energy than comparable products or helps reduce the energy use of Walmart customer / Sam's Club member
People & Community
- Social Impact - Uses ingredients or processes that are certified by a Walmart/Sam's Club recognized socially focused certification Chemicals - Contains substantially fewer chemicals that are toxic or harmful to humans than are standard in their product categories Education - Inspires customers to behave in a more sustainable manner
The Wal-Mart Sustainability Index
TH: Wal-Mart has announced the development of a sustainability index, in cooperation with major universities and leading organizations working for sustainability. How will this information be made visible to the on-line consumer?
RV: That is the kind of effort that the stores will clearly lead on. We think one of the most important roles we can play is that you will be able to see the numbers or the colors, or whatever the customer friendly way to represent it is, but I think that the beauty of the online channel will be that you will be able to click into this thing, be able to learn more about them and be better educated. So as we've talked to Matt Kistler and others in the Wal-Mart stores, we think that we will be a very important part of the customer-facing portion of that effort.
TH: Do you see your customers driving a move towards green, or do you see yourselves more in a leadership role, trying to create excitement for green in the community of Wal-Mart customers?
RV: I think it is a bit of both. Here in San Francisco there are a lot of people that are very excited already about green because they've taken the time to educate themselves on many of the issues and they began to have additional considerations when purchasing or disposing of product. But I think for a lot of the country, especially in this recession right now, green is not top of mind for them in choosing a product and they are not necessarily spending the time trying to understand a product's environmental impact.
So I think in those areas we'll have to lead, and I think that's where the index can be important in helping customers learn more about why these things are important and how Wal-Mart can help. So I think it's a bit of both, depending on the customer segment.
TH: How do you feel that virtual retail, eCommerce, is changing the practice of sustainability? For example, when people enter a LEED certified Wal-Mart Superstore, you get marketing value. Companies naturally focus on those points that are most visible. Where do you find the value in the eCommerce area of practicing sustainably?
RV: I think there will be value in a few areas. The first is, that we will be able to provide an even larger selection of earth friendly products in eCommerce, because we don't have to work within the constraints of a certain amount of square feet that may be allowed in a particular country or in a particular region. We are simply able to provide a much broader assortment. So for example walmart.com offers about 10 times the number of products that are in a typical super center.
As we continue to expand our assortment, it means that segment...that today already is fairly well educated on sustainability, will be able to come to walmart.com and find more products than she could in a regular Wal-Mart store. So I think that is one area where we can help, is simply a broader assortment of earth-friendly products.
The second area where we can help with is what you and I talked about earlier, which is information. In a busy store environment, where a lot of people are walking through there, where you're not necessarily in the mindset of wanting to really learn things, right? I mean, once you are in a store, I think you are more in the mindset that there are a certain things that you want to accomplish and you want to just get those things done as quickly as possible and go on with the rest of your day.
But if you are in front of your computer, say during a break in the day or at the end of the day, you may have the opportunity to learn more or to feed your curiosity a bit more. That's where I think the online channel can help. And we talked about the fact that Walmart.com specifically with the sustainability index can help because we can provide that information and then we can allow you to go ahead and dig even deeper to learn about what it is that the index does and how we collect the information and why it's important. Those are all things that I think the online medium can do in a way that a store even an elite certified store cannot do that
And then the last one would just be, looking for the efficiencies in the supply chain. The online channel, just because of the fact that it is different, that you've got packages that are moving in the eaches or just a few packages moving all the way through the supply chain, the online channel has evolved in a very different manner. We've got overboxing of items, for example, that overbox -- the way we've thought about it, is that the box itself represents waste. It is important, because it protects the product. And If you don't protect the product you may damage the product, which may be even more wasteful, right, if you have to dispose of it. But what is the right amount of packaging and how do you look at the whole supply chain, with that eye of eliminating waste and eliminating things that aren't necessary or that may be harmful for the environment. And how do you look at the distance, how do you look at the quality so you don't have to replace the products as often?
More of TreeHugger's interview with Raul Vazquez on