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Dissecting Wal-Mart's updated sustainability philosophy

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When big companies like Wal-Mart Stores start enforcing sustainability policies, people absolutely take notice. And I'm not talking just about custome...

When big companies like Wal-Mart Stores start enforcing sustainability policies, people absolutely take notice. And I'm not talking just about customers. The mammoth retailer's suppliers can't help but take notice, because many of Wal-Mart's mandates trickle down to effect them, too.

I've covered some of the individual announcements made by Wal-Mart over the past two years, especially those surrounding its Green IT intentions, but I figured its entire strategy was worth a closer scrutiny—especially since the company has just released its 2009 Sustainability Report. You can find the full report here.

In his opening message, Wal-Mart President and CEO Michael Duke reiterates the Company's stance that it cannot afford not to be sustainable. One big achievement of the past year, for example, was its program to make its U.S. fleet 25 percent more efficient. Actually, the company has earned an overall efficiency improvement over 2005 levels (when the program was launched). It's ultimate goal is to double fleet efficiency by 2015 over the 2005 baseline. Certainly this a great thing for carbon footprint calculations, but in the boardroom, I'm sure they're even more thrilled of the impact on the economic bottom line.

Wal-Mart's high-level sustainability goals are pretty simple, which I think other businesses should remember when trying to figure out how to actually deliver on their own missions. They are:

  1. To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy. (Here's the progress toward that.)
  2. To create zero waste. (Progress report.)
  3. To sell products that sustain our resources and the environment. (Check up on this one here.)

As I was reading through the progress reports for each of these areas, I felt it worth highlighting some of the things that Wal-Mart hopes to accomplish this year. Here's a few of the commitments on deck:

  • Open a prototype store in the United States that is 25 percent to 30 percent more efficient than existing designs AND that will produce more than 30 percent less green house gas emissions: The company says it's on track to do this.
  • Reduce energy use for Wal-Mart China by up to 30 percent in existing stores and create a store prototype that uses 40 percent less energy by 2010: So far, this division has cut power consumption in existing stores by more than 24 percent. No news on the store prototype.
  • Cut back on packaging by 5 percent by 2013: The company is in the evaluation phase on this commitment, after having collected information from its supply chain.
  • Reduce the weight of global plastic bag waste by 33 percent per store by 2013: This is a new goal as of September 2008. These are the latest details.
  • Make the most energy-hungry items in its stores, including personal computers, video game consoles, air conditioners and televisions, 25 percent more energy-efficient by January 2011. No update here yet.
  • Double the sales of products in the United States that make homes more energy-efficient by 2011 against 2008 levels: So far, it has seen sales of appropriate products including caulk, weather stripping, air filters, programmable thermostats, expanding foam and power strips increase by more than 25 percent.

When you're planning or refining your own sustainability agenda, take a cue from Wal-Mart and get S.M.A.R.T. about them. That is, pick things that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Otherwise, no one will take them seriously, especially the employees that need to deliver.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure