Wal-Mart’s white hat

Company’s sustainability index may be a game changer

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

One of the advantages of being the eldest of five children is that you can appear worldly even when armed with rudimentary knowledge.

I had one of these worldly moments when I explained to my younger brothers and sisters that the guys on television wearing black hats were the bad guys, and the guys wearing the white hats were good guys. My siblings were, of course, astounded by my perception.

This simplistic duality leads me to a discussion of Wal-Mart, by far the world’s largest retailer.

Until recently, Wal-Mart, in my view of sustainability, was definitely wearing a black hat. Here’s an organization that builds gigantic box stores that wipe out smaller local competitors. But surprise, surprise, Wal-Mart appears to have donned a chapeau of a different color!

Wal-Mart first broke rank with other American large-scale retailers when it endorsed President Barack Obama’s health-care plan last month. Of course, there’s a logical financial reason for the company to grant its support—it forces some of its smaller competitors to provide health care. But all the same, Wal-Mart, America’s largest employer, has given Obama’s plan a tremendous boost.

Continuing the makeover, two weeks ago Wal-Mart unveiled its highly anticipated sustainability index, which will eventually provide pertinent environmental data on all of the store’s products, enabling consumers to choose the product they want, from the cheapest to the greenest to the most local.

According to Andrew Winston’s Green Advantage column on the Harvard Business Publishing Web site, Wal-Mart intends to ask all of its suppliers 15 detailed questions separated into four groups: energy and climate, material efficiency, natural resources, and people and community. The questions are directed at the corporation, not individual products. The answers will be used to rate each company’s commitment to sustainability. Although participation isn’t mandatory, Wal-Mart has indicated it will give added preference to those suppliers who answer the questionnaire. The deadline for replying is October 1.

I have confidence that when provided with this kind of information, consumers will demand more sustainable products, and manufacturers will respond to supply that demand. Moreover, Wal-Mart’s dominance of the retail arena may persuade other retailers to follow suit—the box-store giant has even offered to provide the information it collects free of charge to other businesses.

The moral of the story, brothers and sisters? Sometimes, you can’t separate the world into white hats and black hats. There are shades of gray, different patterns. If Wal-Mart’s sustainability index has the impact experts are predicting, a checkered ball cap might be more appropriate for the retail giant, because it’ll be a win-win for everybody.