Photo: WalmartIn 2009, Walmart created a stir when it announced that it would develop a Sustainability Index to assess the environmental impacts of every item on its shelves and provide an easy rating system to help shoppers make greener choices. CEO Mike Duke described [PDF] the index as "a simple tool that informs consumers about the sustainability of products" and helps them "consume in a more sustainable way." This, in turn, would induce Walmart's 100,000 suppliers to shrink their footprints.
The company set a five-year timetable. Many commentators gushed. The New York Times found the news so momentous that it dedicated an editorial to it, noting, "Given Wal-Mart's huge purchasing power, if it is done right it could promote both much-needed transparency and more environmentally sensitive practices."
More than two years on, this ambitious project doesn't have much to show for itself. A consumer label "is really far off and maybe not a reality," according to Elizabeth Sturcken, a managing director at Environmental Defense Fund, which has partnered with Walmart on its sustainability initiatives. "This information is really complex. Getting it reduced into a simple label for consumers is very challenging."
Still, Sturcken thinks the project could produce valuable information for Walmart and manufacturers, and drive product improvements behind the scenes. "I think getting it into a system that product buyers and suppliers could use is much more attainable," she said.
But even that seems to be proving elusive.