If you’re like me, you may be fatigued over the over-use (and misuse) of the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” in the retail industry. Consumer product companies and retailers across the market are engaged in some sort of sustainability strategy — sometimes spending millions to doing so. This includes efforts to be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.
At least once or twice a day, a press release pops into my inbox touting the latest sustainability initiative by a Fortune 500 firm. And then there are the countless newsletters and blog posts too. It seems everyone is involved with sustainability in some way or another.
Amid the sustainability and green chatter, I’m left unsure of what exactly companies are doing to be more sustainable. It all seems to be a lot of talk and little action. Indeed, as you may suspect, it’s hard to walk the talk — especially in an age of blatant “greenwashing” . But, as some say, the times are a ‘changin.
Over the past five years, firms such as Starbucks, GE and H&M Hennes and Mauritz Ab have made strides in their quest of being the most sustainable company in the world. (Check out this list here to see the Global 100 most sustainable firms.)
Within the retail sector, Wal-Mart Stores has taken a leadership role in this area by doling out massive corporate resources in a sustainability effort that is as broad as it is deep. Earlier this summer, the retail giant launched a sustainability program aimed at making its entire supply chain more sustainable. Tagged the Sustainable Product Index, the initiative is designed to create a “single source of data” for making sure products sold are sustainable.
Mike Duke, president and CEO of Wal-Mart, said in a statement in July that customers “want products that are more efficient, that last longer and perform better…“And increasingly they want information about the entire lifecycle of a product so they can feel good about buying it. They want to know that the materials in the product are safe, that it was made well and that it was produced in a responsible way.”
Duke went on to say that this is no passing trend. “Higher customer expectations are a permanent part of the future,” he added.
Wow, now there’s a bold statement. Essentially, what Duke is saying is that consumers today not only possess a massive power to choose goods based on price and quality, but they also have the ability to choose products based on how good it is for the environment. Time will tell if Duke is correct.
In the meantime, the company said this past week that Andrea Thomas — who is the retailer’s senior vice president, global merchandising for home, hardlines and entertainment — will transition into the role of senior vice president of sustainability, replacing Matt Kistler, who will take on a senior vice president gig with the U.S. marketing group. According to Environmental Leader, Thomas is described as a “committed driver of sustainability” within Wal-Mart’s private label business. The choice of Thomas makes sound business sense. Her knowledge of the supply chain will be invaluable to the company as it gears up its sustainarbility index.
From a vendor’s perspective, though, implementing sustainability into the design, sourcing of materials and manufacturing of goods is surely an incredible undertaking. To be truly sustainable, most vendors will have to completely transform their business. As Wikipedia notes, sustainability means “having the capacity to endure .” And endure we must — not only for our the success of our businesses, but for a healthy planet as well.