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Sustainability: The Wal-Mart way

What happens when one of the world's largest corporations—the world's largest retailer—decides to both live and preach a sustainable way of life? Uniquely positioned to have both upstream impact on its suppliers and downstream impact on its customers, plus internal influence on its employees, Wal-Mart is sure to not just make the wheels start to grind but to spin. This issue's special focus on sustainability in packaging would not be complete without a close look at Wal-Mart's initiatives.

Wal-Mart did not invent the concept of sustainability. Many small and large corporations have been supporting sustainable practices for years, even decades. The giant retailer's role in the saga began about two years ago when Rob Walton (Sam's son), an avid outdoorsman, was persuaded by an environmentalist friend that the giant retailer could effect a profound difference. Because he had by then removed himself from operational responsibilities in the corporation, Walton was at first reluctant. Also, he was keenly aware that personal interests and campaigns were never welcomed in the boardroom. But Walton succeeded in securing an audience for his friend with Wal-Mart's Lee Scott, perhaps the world's most powerful CEO. Plagued of late by intensely negative PR, Scott saw merit in the idea.

In a highly publicized speech watched by Wal-Mart's 1.8 million associates, Scott carefully outlined his three-pronged sustainability plan: renewable energy, zero waste and products that sustain our resources and environment. What will make this work is the corporation's scope, he said. For example, if Wal-Mart were a country, it would be the 20th largest in the world. If it were a city, it would be the fifth largest in America. A recent cover story in Fortune magazine points out that if, during just one week, each of Wal-Mart's 176 million customers that week were to buy one long-life compact-fluorescent light bulb, electric bills would be reduced by $3 billion, 50 billion tons of coal would be conserved and 1 billion incandescent light bulbs would be kept out of landfills.

That's the potential effect of the retailer's impact on customers. But what about its 60,000 suppliers? Last November, Wal-Mart announced its commitment to reducing packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent by 2013. At a keynote session during PACK EXPO International 2006, Sam's Club executives revealed a metrics scorecard by which suppliers can ascertain their level of sustainability [www.packagingdigest.com/info/walmart]. The scorecard's metrics evolved from attributes known within Wal-Mart as the "7 Rs of Packaging": Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Renew, Revenue and Read. Access to the scorecard begins this month, so it's too early to evaluate how many of those 60,000 suppliers will make use of the metrics system or what impact it may have on their packaging. It's definitely a topic Packaging Digest will revisit later.

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