Is Wal-Mart’s ‘Sustainability Index’ Our Only Hope? E-mail
Wednesday, 17 March 2010 00:00  |  Written by Steve Graham | Blog Entry

Wal-mart photo by MonochromeWe’ve come full circle. Not too long ago, companies were clueless about being eco-friendly, and perhaps thought “going green” meant painting the walls. Then companies tried to implement small measures to be sustainable. Next came greenwashing at one extreme and a full-court press at the other, with off-grid corporate headquarters made of straw.

Now we have new levels of confusion from the greenwashers and some companies that previously didn’t even care. They want to honestly say they are going green, but they’re not getting enough guidance. Wal-Mart may be their best hope for a helping hand, but the company’s index is still years away.

Plastics companies, for example, argue there are not enough standards and definitions in place for sustainable manufacturing and marketing of plastics and packaging. Moreover, their ideas of sustainability aren’t in sync with consumer perceptions.

“There really isn’t a right or wrong way in sustainable design. What is lacking at the moment is sufficient clarity,” said Mark Shayler, managing director of UK-based environmental and eco-design consultancy eco3, at a recent Sustainable Plastics Packaging conference.

Part of the problem is that consumers want the simple labels—the little recycling triangles and compostable corn plastics, for example. But not all recyclables (or compostables, for that matter) are the same. It’s about the whole production and supply chain, but that’s hard to put on a label and even to quantify. The plastics conference speakers concluded that marketing folks must figure out ways to sell big-picture sustainability.

Companies are also getting lousy attempts at guidance. For example, aluminum producer Alcoa and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) launched Vision 2050 in February “to develop strategies that would enable a global population of some 9 billion people to live well within the resources of the planet by 2050.” Good idea, but the specifics aren’t so helpful for companies. Two of the guidelines are:

  • “Meeting the development needs of billions of people, enabling education and economic empowerment, particularly of women, and developing radically more eco-efficient solutions, lifestyles and behavior.”
  • “Delivering a four- to ten-fold improvement in the use of resources and materials.”

How does Acme Widgets use these tips to make more sustainable widgets? I’m not optimistic for 2050 if this is the best that the WBCSD can do. The group claims to be a coalition of 200 CEOs in 36 countries and 22 major industrial sectors. And this is the best they can come up with?

Granted, it is a step above the head-in-the-sand US Chamber of Commerce, but a few steps behind Wal-Mart. In a couple of years, when the retail giant launches its promised sustainability index, companies might have some real guidance. Until then, confusion likely will continue to reign.

Comments (1)add
Written by MP , March 20, 2010
Whoa. 2050 is way too far off for these corporate polluters to figure it out.
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