Thursday, March 4, 2010

Greening Wal-Mart’s Supply Chain

The Environmental Defense Fund is partnering with Wal-Mart to improve the environmental performance of its supply chain. Using Wal-Mart’s leverage to reduce carbon pollution throughout the life cycle of products and the supply chain for those products is a powerful way to change farm practices and other manufacturing behavior. Wal-Mart recently committed to reduce the carbon footprint from the life cycle of Wal-Mart’s products and supply chain by 20 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent from calendar year 2010 to 2015. In part this will be accomplished by having Wal-Mart use their leverage with their supply chain to influence the environmental practices, transportation, and storage of their supplying manufacturer. Part of this reduction will be accomplished by Wal-Mart’s customers who will be educated in more sustainable use of a product. A typical example of customer education is recommending that customers use cold water to wash laundry instead of hot. The Environmental Defense Fund team working on this project has developed a detailed guidance document about what can count towards Wal-Mart's goal, as well as how reductions should be quantified and confirmed if at all possible. That of course is the sticking point with CO2 reductions.

Part of all of this is bureaucracy and public image, but if somehow out of this study comes a set of tools to quickly help business people and consumers make good and informed decisions about their environmental behavior it would be great. The environmental Defense Fund is not just focusing on carbon contained in the supply chain and life cycle of the products. They say that they are looking to identify the most serious environmental and social "hot spots" in the life cycle of Wal-Mart’s private brand food and grocery categories and working with designers and suppliers to improve overall product sustainability including water and pesticide usage. Encouraging and educating farmers and even the industrial farm complex on farming “best practices” is a proven way to reduce pesticide runoff and environmental impact at very little dollar cost.

In a pilot study performed on dairy suppliers, the Environmental Defense Fund analyzed the costs and emissions associated with a gallon of milk, from dairy farm to distribution center. By gathering and looking at the data, the Environmental Defense Fund identified the easily achieved improvements that “best practices” farm management can have in energy used to produce milk. Simple changes in fertilizer and manure management, at dairy processing facilities can achieve significant improvements in energy efficiency and even in the product itself, such as making milk shelf-stable. Soil and Conservation Districts nationwide have been aware of the improvements in environmental stewardship that can be achieved though simple improvements in farm practices; however, these organizations have not had any leverage to encourage farmers and dairy operations to implement these practices or adequate budget to develop farm plans. Wal-Mart’s involvement in this area could really encourage the adoption of these programs. It is important that these efforts be couched in more than CO2 reduction, because carbon reduction is such a limited concept and this is truly environmental stewardship and sustainability improvement project.

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