Brands: Why Should It Be Up to Walmart to Tell Us If You Are Sustainable? photo

Walmart recently launched its Sustainability Leaders online shop. While I commend the company’s efforts over the past six years to elevate sustainability as an important attribute of products and their manufacturers, I feel that this launch is a bit misplaced. I am sure that it will be successful in terms of awareness and conversions, and I hope that the intent is genuine, but should Walmart even be the creator of the index? How about an independent organization such as the B Lab? How about the brands themselves?

While Walmart has explicitly stated that its badge “does not make representations about the environmental or social impact of an individual product, only that the manufacturer has scored well enough to earn a badge across all of the products they make in that category,” I would suspect that the general public will not understand that delineation. Although a legally accurate designation, I think the “Sustainability Leader” badge is quite misleading. As a consumer, I have no way to see the rankings or the survey scores used to feed into those rankings. Did the manufacturers score 80 percent or 10 percent to be ranked in the top of the category? Are they becoming more sustainable over time, or is their ranking just improving relative to their peers? If Walmart really wants to shine a light on sustainability, which I believe is an increasingly important consumer value, then it should make the survey and index data publicly available.

Better yet, the manufacturers and brands themselves should infuse sustainability into their core values, share their TSC scores, and embrace transparency. Why rely on a retailer such as Walmart to do the work? With an open dialog on sustainability, marketers would then be able to leverage the conversation to connect with their audience. A few examples of brands that have started doing this are Method with its Behind The Bottle content, Levi’s with its Water<Less jeans, and Johnson & Johnson with its Care to Recycle campaign. 

As consumers become more interested in the global impact of the products they use, openness around sustainability will gain in importance. Brands and manufacturers have an opportunity to be on the forefront of that trend, and win customers as a result. I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future where a sustainability score is part of a product’s label and its marketing. Not only would customers know what ingredients were used to make the things that they consume, but they would also be able to assess their broader global impact. I look forward to that future.