Today’s Wall Street Journal announced a massive “green” initiative by Wal-Mart that will eventually enable consumers to make informed choices about the environmental impact of the products and brands they’re thinking about buying. Because of Wal-Mart’s enormous clout with both suppliers and consumers, the implications of Wal-Mart’s announcement could be game changing.
In the future Wal-Mart will require all of its suppliers to provide detailed information about the environmental costs, sustainability measures, and carbon impact of what it takes to manufacture and distribute the products that Wal-Mart stocks on its shelves. Wal-Mart wants consumers to be able to understand and compare the relative sustainability of foods and beverages, packaged goods, media and consumer electronics, apparel — for all SKUs that are stocked on the retailer’s shelves. Wal-Mart intends that its green footprint labeling program apply to the sustainability impact of consumer items throughout the life cycle of those goods — not just from raw material sourcing and manufacture to point-of-sale.
It will take years for this “green labeling” program to roll out in its entirety. Wal-Mart says it intends to enforce 100% compliance with this program on the part of its suppliers: if they don’t want to participate, they’ll no longer be able to sell and distribute their products through Wal-Mart.
Because Wal-Mart accounts for almost 8% of all retail sales in America, this initiative will have a profound impact. Because suppliers will have to comply if they want to do business with Wal-Mart, the second-order benefits of compliance will spill over onto other retailers.
I think this initiative is terrific, and hope that it leads to the following changes:
- the emergence of a common set of sustainability standards, labeling and enforcement practices — not just standards specific to Wal-Mart
- adoption by all consumer-facing retailers — both online and brick-and-mortar
- pricing mechanisms and buyer behavior that reward everyone in the supply chain for being more environmentally responsible
On a related note I hope that experience designers and behavioral specialists are involved in the design of all the systems that communicate these rating systems to consumers, to ensure they are meaningful and readily understood by consumers.