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Wal-Mart Sets Sustainable Ag Goals

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No matter what you think of the world’s largest retailer, you have to admit — Wal-Mart has taken some bold steps lately to become a more responsible, environmentally accountable company.

Today, the company furthered that commitment by announcing a set of global sustainable agriculture goals that promise to support small farms, reduce waste, and source more sustainable materials.

wmproduce.jpgNow, I’m always reluctant to use the word “commitment” when talking about a company in an industry that lives and dies by often-fickle consumer trends. But Wal-Mart’s new goals are substantial and reflect a desire to get out ahead of the problem rather than just follow it. They represent a huge investment on the part of the company, and they set clear, detailed objectives and the deadlines by which they will be completed.

Here are a few of the more notable goals, to be reached by 2015:

** Double sales of local products, which are defined as coming from in-state farms.

** Sell $1 billion worth of food from 1 million small and medium-sized farms.

** Increase the income of its small and medium farmers by 10% to 15%

** Reduce food waste by 10% to 15%.

** Require sustainably sourced palm oil for all its private label products.

This is big, and it promises to send ripples throughout the industry. Just as the company’s Packaging Scorecard ushered in a new generation of ultra-concentrated laundry detergents and other smaller-footprint products, so will this new initiative likely lead to more responsible sourcing practices throughout the food industry. Wal-Mart will push its suppliers to comply with the new goals by creating an agriculture-specific index that measures chemical and fertilizer use, and other criteria.

The ultimate goal, according to the company, is to create a rating system by which consumers can find the most environmentally friendly products available; something akin to the current crop of nutrition labels, but measuring environmental impact rather than nutrition.

Detractors might say that Wal-Mart is only after increased efficiency here. So what if they are? This is how positive change happens in complex industries. It doesn’t happen as fast as some of the more strident eco evangelists would like, or with as much conviction. But it’s heading in the right direction, and that makes ensuring they keep heading in that direction the most important task of all.

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