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Walmart proposes sustainable product index, backs consortium to create rating system

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How likely would you be to buy that new piece of clothing or gadget if you knew EXACTLY how it affected the planet? Walmart is moving to provide unpre...

How likely would you be to buy that new piece of clothing or gadget if you knew EXACTLY how it affected the planet? Walmart is moving to provide unprecedented visibility into just that with its new worldwide product sustainable product index.

The index seeks to provide a single standard measure for environmental info, kind of like what you would find from the Food and Drug Administration on items at the grocery store. The initiative was announced by Walmart President and CEO Mike Duke at a meeting with 1,500 of Walmart's suppliers. Duke said in a press release that the retailer doesn't want to own the index or even be responsible for creating it. Rather, it will start collecting information that can be used by a consortium of universities to do the dirty work. Given its profile, this will definitely help the entire retail industry gain more visibility into this sort of information. That is, if the information is available. My guess is that other retailers might need to pay for the data and given Walmart credit for the data-gathering.

What happens next? First, Walmart is kicking off a survey among its 100,000 suppliers, focusing on gathering the following information related to their products: energy and climate considerations, material efficiency, natural resources, and how the item in question affects the people and community from whence it comes. The company is looking for top-tier U.S. suppliers to complete that survey by Oct. 1.

Next comes the fun part: Walmart is trying to pull together what it is calling the Sustainability Index Consortium, lead by universities to work with suppliers, NGOs, retailers and government agencies to pull together a database of lifecycle credentials. Eventually, Walmart will partner with a technology company (or two) to power the platform that will serve up this information in a consumer-friendlly format. Ratings would be figured out from there.

All in all, this is one heck of an ambitious project, one that will doubtless take months to pull off. But it would (again) establish Walmart as a differentiator in the retail world. Now, the interesting part will be how other retailers, or the suppliers themselves, will be able to use this information.

This Harvard Business Review essay about the new Walmart program is great supplemental reading, especially for any retailer that has been ignoring the environmental credentials of the materials that go into the products on its shelves (wooden or cyber).

Walmart may not be able to pull this off quickly, but this is a game-changer.

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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