How the world’s largest retailer is leading a green revolution

The world’s largest retailer may not be the first organization that comes to mind when you think about sustainability, environmental protection, and conservation. Nonetheless, Walmart has become a green force to reckon with in recent years.

This is potentially world-changing, given that Walmart, which has 11,300 stores around the world and employs more people than anybody but the US government and the Chinese Red Army, sells to millions of people every day. Its shoppers will happily buy green products as long as they are available and affordable – and that’s what Walmart is doing its best to achieve. As one person put it: “Plenty of places sell fair-trade coffee, for example. Only Wal-Mart sells it for $4.71 a pound.”

Photo by Roman Synkevych on Unsplash

This is a pretty big deal, when you think about it. “The potential here is to democratize the whole sustainability idea–not make it something that just the elites on the coasts do but something that small-town and middle America also embrace,” said one of the people who helped Walmart come up with the original green strategy back in 2004-5. “It’s a Nixon-to-China moment.”

When I first started reading about Walmart and the green economy back in 2008 or so, it was in connection with its realization that in order to be able to stock fish products in its stores worldwide, it had a stake in making sure that the world’s fisheries were sustainable. With its buying power and network of suppliers, I grasped that if Walmart decided it would only stock products from fisheries certified as sustainably managed by the independent Marine Stewardship Council, there would be a major impact all the way down the supply chain.

I hadn’t followed developments after that, so I was quite amazed to read about how far Walmart has moved along the sustainability pathway since then – even now, engaging in promoting biodiversity on a large scale.

In 2017, for example, it launched Project Gigaton with the goal of reducing one gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of taking 211 million passenger cards off the road for a whole year – from the company’s supply chains by 2030. And that includes the carbon footprint of its suppliers, as well as Walmart itself. 

More than 2,300 suppliers have formally signed up, ‘making Project Gigaton one of the largest private sector consortiums for climate action’, Walmart says. “Suppliers report having avoided more than 136 MMT of CO2e in 2019, for a cumulative total of more than 230 MMT of CO2e avoided since 2017.” Walmart was the first retailer to have its overall emissions-reduction program approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative, which looks at whether a company’s targets line up with standards set by the Paris Agreement. 

In 2019, 29% of its power came from renewable energy. It procured more wind and installed more solar than any other US company, and diverted 80% of its waste from landfills and incineration globally. It was at the top of CDP’s ‘A List’ for Climate in 2019 and 2020. By 2025, it aims to achieve zero waste in its own operations in Canada, Japan, the UK and the US. And its fresh and frozen seafood, and private brand coffee sales, are now entirely or almost entirely from sources independently certified as sustainable.

Walmart was a founding member of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC), which over the past four years “has facilitated the implementation of over a quarter-million acres of sustainable agriculture practices in the Upper Mississippi River Basin and provided data, financial incentives, and education on soil health, water quality and climate change mitigation to thousands of farmers and consumers”.

The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative has an ambitious vision – supporting farm families and communities through healthy soils that protect water and mitigate climate change impacts, as part of “a US food and agricultural system that is part of a healthy environmental ecosystem and is economically viable for all”. The approach is regenerative, science-based, and focused on scaling up adoption through shared learning. It has some quite specific goals to increase soil health, increase water conservation, and reduce nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

As well as working with US farmers, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation work with small farmers in Mexico and India. As of 2020, it had granted more than $13 million to groups working with more than 96,000 small farmers, about one third of whom were women.

Apart from these varied environmental strategies, Walmart has conserved more than 1.4 million acres of land in the US through a grant program, Walmart Acres for America, and has planted 21 pollinator gardens at retail locations in Oregon, Washington, and North Carolina.

It is interesting to look back at the story of how Walmart has gotten here. It goes back to a meeting of five men in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2004, and it is a story about connections, and interests, and conservation. Two of the men were from Conservation International and had worked with Starbucks and McDonald’s to help make their supply chains more sustainable. Their pitch “was simple: Wal-Mart could improve its image, motivate employees, and save money by going green.”

A year-long review of the company’s environmental impact found savings – on kids’ toys, cutting excessive packaging could save $2.4 million a year in shipping, 3,800 trees, and a million barrels of oil, Fortune reported. Installing auxiliary power units on its 7,200 trucks would save $26 million a year in fuel costs because drivers could keep cabs warm or cool during mandatory breaks rather than letting engines idle.

The plan to shrink Walmart’s environmental footprint was announced to all 1.6 million employees in more than 6,000 stores and shared with 60,000 or so suppliers worldwide in 2005. The company, said CEO H. Lee Scott Jr., intended to achieve three ambitious goals: “To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain our resources and the environment.”

Walmart took an ‘open source’ approach to exploring new ways to do things, ending up with “sustainable value networks” that included Wal-Mart executives, suppliers, environmental groups, and regulators who met every few months to share ideas, set goals, and monitor progress. Each network has a specific focus. Some environmentalists initially found themselves surprised to be in Bentonville, but no longer, although there are still some groups that are skeptical about Walmart’s approach.

It was a profound shift – from a focus on price and transactional interactions, to longer-term, collaborative relationships with nonprofits, suppliers, and other external stakeholders that gave it “a whole-system perspective that helps the retailer find profitable ways to address environmental issues such as fishery depletion, climate change, and pollution.” It is one of those win-win-win approaches – as well as helping Walmart, it helps the nonprofits advance their missions and suppliers benefit from closer relationships with Walmart as well as guidance from the nonprofit partners.

I truly hope that this is the corporate way of the future.


Environmental Highlights. Walmart.

Behind Walmart’s push to eliminate 1 gigaton of greenhouse gases by 2030. CNBC. Dec. 15, 2019

Midwest Crop Row Collaborative – Our Model.

The Midwest Crop Row Collaborative. You Tube. 

The Green Machine. Fortune. Aug. 7, 2006.

The Greening of Wal-Mart. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2008.