Wal-Mart to grade sustainability of electronics, packaging

From 2008, retail giant Wal-Mart will start to evaluate electronics suppliers on their products’ environmental sustainability. The company recently ran a similar exercise for packaging and has just released the results.

Wal-Mart will use a scorecard to rate electronic goods on energy efficiency, durability, upgradeability, amount of packaging and end-of-life options. Products will also be assessed on their use of "innovative materials" that reduce the need for hazardous substances, such as lead and cadmium.

"Wal-Mart believes this scorecard will move electronics in the right direction, a sustainable direction," said Ross Farnsworth, divisional merchandise manager of home electronics. "The scorecard encourages improvements that are good for business as well as for the environment."

Wal-Mart says the evaluation will show suppliers where improvements can be made and allow it to weigh up the environmental sustainability of products when making buying decisions.

But the retailer has yet to release details about how it will use the information and refused to issue the scorecard to journalists for scrutiny.

It also appears to have ignored advice from green groups. Several expressed concern about the creation of yet another rating system when other industry standards already exist such as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), run by the Green Electronics Council (ENDS Report 377, pp 24-25 ). Doubts have also been raised by US NGOs over Wal-Mart’s ability to consistently evaluate the information it receives.

Nevertheless, to encourage suppliers to start using the metrics, Wal-Mart, with the GEC, is sponsoring an innovation design contest which will encourage suppliers to submit products that put the principles into practice. The winning product will be announced in January 2008 and stocked in Wal-Mart’s US stores. The evaluation criteria are still being decided but will cover all life-cycle phases.

The move forms part of the company’s Sustainability 360 initiative and is the latest in a string of green announcements by the company (ENDS Report 375, pp 28-31 ). The initiative aims to look beyond the company’s direct environmental footprint by addressing wider impacts through its supply chains, customers, staff and other associates.

As part of Sustainability 360, Wal-Mart launched a scorecard for packaging in February to 60,000 suppliers to help the company achieve its target of reducing packaging by 5% by 2013.

In the UK, where the company trades as Asda, it aims to reduce food packaging by a quarter by 2008. By 2025, it aims to be "packaging neutral", where "all packaging recovered or recycled will be equal to the amount of packaging used."

The packaging scorecard evaluates the "sustainability" of suppliers’ packaging based on their greenhouse gas emissions, material value, product-to-packaging ratio, cube utilisation, recycled content, innovation, recovery value of raw materials and transport emissions.

The scorecard and methodology have not been released, but the company says suppliers will be given a score for each package in three categories - innovation, environmental standards and energy efficiency - allowing competitors’ performances to be compared.

This year the scorecard is being used to collect data from product suppliers, who will be invited to meet Wal-Mart buyers to learn about "additional improvement methods". From 2008, Wal-Mart says it will use the results to inform buying decisions.

In the first month, the company says over 2,200 vendors logged onto the scorecard website and 117 products have been entered into the system. It expects the figure to increase over the coming year.