Summit of the Americas: Review
Prioritising people and the planet
In one of the most compelling Knowledge Hub sessions at the Summit of the Americas, Walmart Senior Vice President Sustainability Jane Ewing spoke to Martin Moodie about the company’s ambitious sustainability mission in this decade and beyond.
Walmart Senior Vice President Sustainability Jane Ewing outlined the retailer’s ambitious environmental and ethical sustainability programme in one of the highlight sessions at the Summit of the Americas Knowledge Hub. In conversation with The Moodie Davitt Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie, Ewing noted that Walmart’s mission is to become regenerative company with nature and humanity at the core of its business. We feature highlights in the Q&A that follows.
Martin Moodie: Jane, what does the term sustainability actually embrace in Walmart’s eyes and where are you in terms of your commitment to it?
Jane Ewing: We have been on a journey for over 15 years. We source over US$11 billion of product from diverse suppliers, we divert over 80% of our waste from landfills and incineration around the world. We have over 30% of our operations now powered with renewable energy, and we have upgraded our science-based emissions reduction target to the highest level. We have made progress but there is more to be done. We see every day the impact of what we as humanity have been doing on the environment, heavy farming, fishing, some of the encroachment of civilization on animal habitats and rainforests. This balance of our ecosystems has become more unsustainable, so we really have to take action. As a society we are not doing enough and we have got to go beyond what we have done until now. By setting us on this path to becoming a regenerative company, we are committed to restoring, renewing and replenishing, in addition to conserving. That means how we adopt regenerative practices in agriculture in the products we buy, advancing prosperity and equity for our customers and our associates and all people who participate along the supply chain. It means eliminating waste, not just in our stores but all along the product chain.
With that menu of urgent issues, how do you prioritise what you can and should do?
ESG is a way of life, not ticking a box or window dressing. It is built into our practices. We look at it in terms of four areas. How do we create opportunity for our associates and our suppliers? Second, how do we advance environmental and social sustainability in our business and supply chain? Third, how do we strengthen local communities? The fourth is around transparency and integrity. Examples include providing sustainable products and services such as coffee that is approved by outside agencies. And in how we operate, we want to power 100% of our operations with renewable energy. And we also focus on how we train and offer our associates the opportunity to advance. With philanthropy, the Walmart Foundation works with food banks and charities to ensure that unsold items go to people in need. That has been critical during the pandemic.
Your reporting as a company is guided by a series of key frameworks and global standards. But how does that translate into how Walmart does business from the beginning of the supply chain to the end?
All of these various frameworks and organisations are important, and due to the complexity of global supply chains and then this systemic nature of issues like climate change, all means that progress requires collaboration. It reminds me of the Trinity, Martin, with different groups working together. For us it’s about engaging all of our suppliers, NGOs, our customers and governments, among others. In practice, what we do is try and improve the sustainability of a product’s supply chain by listening to our customers and experts and other key stakeholders to set aspirations like emissions reduction or plastic reduction or economic inclusion. And then, we prioritise these improvements to the product supply chain, so it could be farming practices or production traceability. The biggest challenge has been around what we call Scope Three emissions, so those emissions that are actually in our supply chain. So we’re trying to translate that action into real impact through an initiative called Project Gigaton and the goal is to avoid a gigaton’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. We are working to make this and then other supply chain improvements as simple and straightforward as possible to allow for more participation. We aim to really inspire suppliers to take action, irrespective of where they are on their journey, because this stuff can be complex. In terms of our customers, they want to feel good about shopping with us, and they want to ensure trust and transparency. They want action on environmental and social issues and it’s up to us to listen and do the right thing for them, but it’s also good business.
How Walmart sees a sustainable future taking shape
Good ESG practices can involve doing things more expensively yet affordability of food is integral to Walmart’s success. Is there tension between business for good and business for growth?
When you get it right, there isn’t. We can increase productivity while reducing costs. We try and find this intersection between social and environmental issues, products and services and the business operating model. When it comes to climate change, efficiency savings have been a real driver and are good for business. On investment for operations we have got a partnership with GE; they installed over 1.5 million LED lights that is helping us save more than US$100 million over ten years. So you can literally see the results when you get this right, and that helps to engage our business leaders in the importance of this agenda.
Within the business, as you set your key goals and targets, how do you both self check and also monitor the practices of a huge array of suppliers?
First, we estimate our direct, indirect and partial supply chain emissions by using the greenhouse gas protocol. We also complete the Climate Disclosure Project questionnaire and have made the A list for that. We have the Project Gigaton initiative to work with our suppliers and we try and engage them at whatever stage they are on the journey. Some are setting goals in all of these different areas, and then there are others that are just starting out on that journey and we try and support and help them. That also allows us to hold each other accountable. We have also got the target of zero emissions in our operations by 2040 – it’s not net zero, it’s zero and that is a big challenge with over 10,000 operations around the world. Also, nature is just such a critical component of having a sustainable company in a sustainable world, so we have goals to protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and a million square miles of ocean by 2030. That is a big one that we are really excited about. We have zero waste goals too, alongside making responsible recruitment standard practice.
Have there been lessons from the pandemic or have the realities of COVID-19 altered in any way your view of sustainability?
It has impacted everybody, and we have all struggled to cope in many ways. It has made us take a step back and think about how we can do more as a company. Collaboration is critically important. There are significant challenges and we are not just going to snap back to normal so we have got to think differently about the approach. The disruption gave us an opportunity to analyse and review and reset what we do is. We have had a lot of innovation. But it has underscored the interdependence of everything and everyone on the planet. At the beginning people were not directly talking about sustainability, but that pivoted very, very quickly. We set new goals as we realised we weren’t doing enough.
It’s also not just about reacting to the consumer push to be sustainable, you are seeking to shape consumer thinking too aren’t you?
Our customers are increasingly passionate about sustainability and want to reduce packaging and food waste, improve healthy food options and we recognise that – but we also need to look at where they are going next. We have to ensure they can understand and make the choices they want to make by having the right information. That in turn can help build transparency and trust. We are committed to sourcing a least 20 commodities more sustainably and are working hard to do an even better job.
How do you see the role of big business and the impact of the consumables your company sells? It’s a challenge but by sheer scale you have a chance to change this world.
We have to play a leading role, but we have got to work together because no one group can do it themselves. Customers are keeping score; they don’t look the other way and they are committed to buying from companies that they feel are doing the right thing and indeed working for companies that do the right thing. We are the world’s largest grocer and we were built on providing convenient access to affordable food. That remains in place but we have got to do it in a way that creates economic opportunity long term, environmental sustainability and in a way that strengthens communities, because that creates lasting value for the customers and all of the stakeholders.
Tell us more about Project Gigaton and what that means for the company?
The project was launched in 2017 before my time and it is a response to the fact that a lot of environmental impact comes not just from our operations, but from our supply chain. We now have over 3,100 suppliers now signed up, of all sizes. We are well on that journey and have now reported over 400 million metric tons of emissions [reductions] so we hope to be halfway there in 12 to 18 months. Within the project, you can set goals on energy reduction waste reduction, packaging reduction, nature and product use and design and we’re soon adding a pillar on transportation. We offer tools and workshops and initiatives to help them on that journey, And then we partner with our NGO partners like World Wildlife Fund and others to help set goals and work with them.
*Registered delegates can continue to visit the Summit of the Americas, download digital assets from exhibitors and view the Knowledge Hub and Engagement Lounge sessions in the post-event ‘encore’ period that continues until 9 May, through this link.
The Moodie Davitt eZine Issue 294 | 28 April 2021
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