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Green Speak From Wal-Mart


Throughout the retail industry and beyond, Walmart has earned a reputation as a leader in executing sustainable improvements that deliver positive results for consumers, communities and the company’s bottom line. Andrea Thomas, who joined Walmart in 2007, was appointed the company’s first senior VP sustainability in August 2010. Thomas talked with Chain Store Age contributing editor Connie Gentry about what sustainability means at Walmart and how the company leverages its scale to make the biggest possible impact for global good.

Sustainability leadership is an emerging position in many retail organizations. Will you please explain your role at Walmart?

The sustainability role at Walmart is interesting because it is a rotating responsibility. Walmart taps someone from another business area to lead sustainability, with the intention that after two or three years that person will move elsewhere in the company and another Walmart executive will assume the sustainability role. Although it’s not a career destination, it’s a very interesting job. There is interaction internally across virtually all departments, and an equal amount of interaction externally with communities, government agencies, NGOs [non-governmental organizations, typically associated with the United Nations] and other entities. Getting to know all the people who are coming together to work on sustainability is fascinating. Next month it will be two years since I began this rotation, and I expect to spend at least one to two more years in this role because there is a lot of work that still needs to happen.

Tell us about your background and how it helped to lead sustainability.

Before joining Walmart, I spent 13 years at Pepsico and a couple of years at Hershey. So I dealt with Walmart and other retailers from the manufacturing side. In my early years at Pepsico, I worked in the restaurant division; and while that’s not retail per se, it involved working with many store locations and it had a lot of the same flavor to it as a retail organization.

Initially I came to Walmart to work with private brands, food and consumables, then I moved into sourcing general merchandise. For sustainability, it is very helpful to have an understanding of store operations, logistics and our supply chain. About 90% of our carbon footprint comes through our supply chain.

I’ve spent most of my career working with innovations on the CPG side, balancing new products and understanding all the pieces of the supply chain. With all the products in our stores, it’s very important to understand where products come from and identify opportunities to do things more efficiently and more environmentally pointed.

How is sustainability integrated into the Walmart culture?

Walmart is all about lowering costs so we can lower prices, attract additional traffic and build customer loyalty. When you think about the principals of sustainability, the emphasis is on doing more with less, being more efficient, and using fewer natural resources. For a retailer, this is particularly true as you think about how to develop stores and supply chains. In those respects, sustainability is very supportive of the Walmart productivity loop. From the very beginning, our priority was to help every department and associate understand the principals of sustainability, how sustainability supports the company’s productivity loop, and that sustainability needs to be embraced throughout the organization.

In addition to my team of 14 people, there are others who don’t report directly to me but, within their department, their job is to support our sustainability efforts. We also created Sustainable Value Networks throughout the company so people working in various jobs have the opportunity to think about how we should address sustainable opportunities within the business.

What are some of the things your sustainability team is responsible for?

The team supports and liaises with the external resources and expertise that reside outside the company, including the NGOs, and with internal associates who focus on sustainability. We develop scorecards, lead discussions that need to take place to address sustainability issues, and conduct milestone meetings to communicate what Walmart is doing.

How do you define sustainability at Walmart?

Before we talk about sustainability, you have to step back and look at our company mission: Saving people money so they can live better. Sustainability is one aspect of how to live better, but it’s not the only part. In my role, I also work on Walmart’s healthy foods initiative and I partner closely with our Walmart Foundation to promote women’s economic empowerment and community programs around hunger. These initiatives all come together to help achieve the “living better” goal and Walmart certainly has a broader definition of sustainability than a lot of companies; but frankly we don’t get caught up in the semantics.

Under the sustainability umbrella, we look at anything to do with the environment, communities, and economic sustainability that will help us continue to serve our customers well into the future. We maintain a broad definition because it is more about how we can make a broad impact than how we fit into a very specific definition.

Across such a broad spectrum, how do you prioritize where to focus sustainability efforts?

Our visionary goals were set in the 21st Century Leadership speech that Lee Scott, then CEO, gave in October 2005, and include three main aspirational goals around waste, energy and products. One is to be supplied by100% renewable energy, to create zero waste, and the third is to have products that sustain people and the environment. Those are big, broad and far-reaching, but it’s easy to categorize what fits under each goal and identify ways that the business touches each aspect. For instance, waste falls under operations and transportation supports product getting to the stores which is a big energy piece.

On the product side we have projects around sustainable agriculture and the Sustainability Index. We’ve set goals around agriculture because it touches so many areas of our business. Food, obviously, but also the cotton used in apparel and home products or wood that goes into furnishings and hardlines. The Sustainability Index helps us understand the supply chain and recognize areas we need to start working on and thinking about. Some goals are to educate us, so we can experiment and learn ways to be more energy efficient in our stores.

Other goals are broad and have a lot of scale, such as creating zero waste which is one area where we have already made excellent progress. In our U.S. operations, we have diverted 80% of waste away from landfills. Some of our goals are global or may focus on a particular region. For example, within sustainable agriculture we have specific goals about product sourced from Brazil and we also have a global goal for using sustainable palm oil in our private brands. We can’t do everything everywhere, so we try to focus on the things that are uniquely connected either to our business or where we do business.

What did you do to achieve diverting 80% of the company’s waste out of landfills?

First we encouraged our people to focus on waste reduction and understand its importance. In the past, each store paid to have its waste hauled to the landfill. We highlighted the fact that there is value to the waste and we helped our store teams develop recycling programs with their communiti

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