Doing Sustainability Right – Lessons From Whole Foods and Wal-Mart

Industry has a tremendous impact on the environment, and thus, can have a tremendous impact in improving it. As green goes mainstream, companies of all shapes and sizes are looking for ways to incorporate the tenets of sustainability. Be it an office recycling program or a global sustainability initiative, every company has to start somewhere. Fortunately, a few are getting it right, providing lessons for the rest of us.

Whole Foods Market
Whole Foods is dedicated to providing quality food in support of an interdependent world. Local producers and suppliers play a key role, providing fresh fruits and vegetables, while furthering the sustainable agriculture industry that promotes ecological health. Through their Local Producer Loan Program, Whole Foods provides low interest loans to the growers that in turn support the grocer’s ability to provide high-quality food in their stores – a strategic investment that benefits Whole Foods. The company also empowers individual buyers to seek out and purchase from sustainable suppliers, engaging them directly in Whole Foods’ pursuit of sustainability.

Wal-Mart competes based on its ability to supply products at a low price – their profit margin is famously low at around 2%. They achieve this by wringing the lowest possible price from suppliers and cutting their own operating costs wherever possible. Their huge revenues are driven by volume. After years of bad press related to these tactics, Wal-Mart has begun receiving accolades for its sustainability policies, even though its competitive strategy has not changed.

How? Wal-Mart has proved the old adage that a penny saved is a penny earned. By looking up its supply chain and requesting a reduction in packaging, suppliers save money on raw materials – savings that can then be passed down to Wal-Mart. Since the competition for shelf space is tough, and Wal-Mart favors suppliers that meet these goals, there is a distinct advantage in compliance. The retailer has also set up systems to benchmark, measure and share what’s being learned. As a result, savings from packaging reduction (coupled with Wal-Mart’s own improvements in logistics) will save the retailer an hundreds of millions each year.

Characteristics of Successful Sustainability Initiatives
Examples such as these illustrate some characteristics shared by successful sustainability programs:
– Green policies directly support business strategies, and are material to the company’s core business
– Core values align with those of its customer base
– Holistic view of sustainability, looking across the company’s entire operation, both up and down the supply chain
– Empower and engage employees through training, knowledge sharing, and reward/competition systems
– Encourage change in supply chain: share goals and knowledge, help suppliers meet goals and reward those that do
– Establish benchmarking and measurement systems
– Communicate results – both wins and challenges – to all stakeholders

Whether you’re looking to green your office or take a multinational corporation down the path to sustainability, know that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel – learn from those that have gone before you.

Copyright 2009 Cassie Walker, The Sustainable Office