When Wal-Mart announced that they were going to start selling organic food, their unique power to make a worldwide impact in the blink of an eye became strikingly clear. Overnight, the decision would make Wal-Mart the single largest organic food retailer on the block. Of course, their strength as a corporate change agent can force outcomes in more than one direction. They can single-handedly turn organic farming into a dominant agricultural model simply by creating massive demand, but they can also perpetuate oppressive livelihoods for laborers in factories where their goods come out cheap because the human capital involved in production doesn't even get a penny's worth of representation on a Wal-Mart pricetag.
Just yesterday we were talking about Wal-Mart with some friends in Vancouver who asked what Wal-Mart would have to do to gain a stamp of approval from die-hard sustainability advocates. It's hard to say, and I'm no expert on their strategy, merely a consumer with an interest in their actions and eyes and ears peeled on their moves towards green; but as such, I'm pretty impressed with the most recently released news from Bentonville: a plan to create a scorecard for electronics suppliers who sell their products at Wal-Mart.
The lifecycle of most electronics today is one long series of shortsighted design decisions and careless disposal systems. E-waste wreaks havoc on people and planet, and even if we started changing our ways today, mountains of existing electronic detritus would continue to do damage for years or decades to come. That said, if any one thing could swiftly and directly alleviate the burden of waste and encourage smarter design strategy, it might be a set of limitations from a giant like Wal-Mart. According to the release:
Next year, Wal-Mart will ask electronics suppliers to fill out a scorecard that will assess the sustainability of their product. The scorecard will evaluate electronics on energy efficiency, durability, upgradability, end-of-life solutions, and the size of the package containing the product. Products will also be evaluated on their ability to use innovative materials that reduce the amount of hazardous substances, such as lead and cadmium, contained in the product. The end result is a score that shows suppliers where improvements can be made and allows Wal-Mart to evaluate the environmental sustainability of the product.
Having recognized their own might as a massive change agent in the world, Wal-Mart's chosen a good target with electronics -- an industry that lags behind in terms of both their green design/production practices and the degree of awareness/concern among their consumers. As Jer pointed out here almost a year ago in a piece about computers:
So far, consumers haven't cared about ecological impact when buying computers, they've cared only about speed and price. But as Moore's Law marches on and computers commoditize, consumers will become pickier about being green. (This means you!) Tomorrow's bright green computers will be different from today's in many ways. So far its rare to see a product that pulls on more than one solution, but the industry is starting to move forward--sometimes of its own accord, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming by regulations and consumer activism.
The greenest computer will not miraculously fall from the sky one day; it'll be the product of years of improvements to this and that along the way. Designers can now make many small changes converge into a full rethinking of the industry, into directions as yet unknown. And when they do, we will have on our desk a machine that not only connects us to the world through information technology, but to a cycle of manufacturing that doesn't hurt us or future generations; to companies that consider both the people who make their computers and those who take them apart; and all in a product that is lighter, sleeker and more elegant than any we've yet seen.
Bright green consumer electronics -- the kind that achieve an optimal convergence of multiple good design strategies which result in a product exceptional in its performance and exceptionally light in its impact -- may be a long way off, but systems that incentivize producers and educate consumers are essential for this process to accelerate at the rate we need. All over the place, companies are moving towards carbon neutrality in their own operations, and calling for more transparency for consumers in terms of the carbon load of the things they sell. As we've mentioned before, the UK company Tesco will soon offer climate labeling on their products, and numerous innovative designers are thinking up ways to tell a detailed backstory. As with all rating systems, from LEED to EPEAT, there's always a question of whether standardizing the expectation of what "good" means will lead to a decreased incentive to surpass the established benchmark. But everything has a starting point, and it's good to see the big players beginning to pitch a serious game around sustainability.
Good job, Sarah, I'm continually impressed with your articles.
I'm also impressed with Wal-Mart, who've made at least half a dozen positive moves recently such as phasing out incandescent bulbs in favor of CFL's and working with Amory Lovins and RMI to double the efficiency of their truck fleet.
The electronics issue is also a big one. Hope they keep up the trend!
Wal-Mart is just getting better at greenwashing.
They will continue to make these relatively small steps towards "sustainablilty" so as to keep the attention off of the explotation of factory workers and farmers they support worldwide.
This scorecard concept appears to have few real consequences other than improving Wal-Mart's image. No set goals or definite plans for reducing levels of toxins or energy inputs (in other words...nothing to hold Wal-Mart accountable by).
If we really want a bright green future, Wal-Mart is going to have to be a part of it. We need to call Wal-Mart out on its weak attempts to greenwash us into complacency.
I tend to fall between the two earlier opinions. Getting the metrics on how suppliers match up to criteria is the start. Setting up criteria is not a simple process and it may be that the scorecard will need to be tweaked after it's used in the real world.
The important step (not explicitly mentioned in the article and therefore my assumption is that Wal-Mart on not yet planning it) will be to label the products for consumers to use in decision making.
Of course, there is always a risk that each company will create it's own scorecard scheme and product labelling methods, which will just end up confusing everyone...