One to Grow On

Aveda and Wal-Mart. A few years ago, it would have seemed that these two companies had little in common. One built its brand on natural products and the promise of eco-friendly practices, the other on the promise of low prices. But shortly after Hurricane Katrina, environmental issues became a chief talking point for Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, who laid out three environmental goals for the company: to be supplied 10 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain not only company resources, but the environment.

With more than 60,000 suppliers around the world, Wal-Mart aims to reduce overall packaging by 5 percent by 2013. It’s an admirable goal, one that would remove 213,000 trucks from the road and save 76 million gallons of diesel fuel in a year. And to achieve it, last month the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer formally introduced an environmentally minded packaging scorecard that evaluates suppliers based on the sustainability of their packaging and rates them against their competitors. Buyers use those scorecard results to inform their purchasing decisions. Although experts in sustainability circles say the scorecard is far from perfect, all agree it’s a positive start and long-term results of this corporate commitment could be enormously beneficial to the environment.

“When Wal-Mart sneezes, the world catches a cold,” says Donald Carli, a senior research fellow with the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communication in New York and president of consultancy Nima Hunter. “The fact that they’ve made sustainable packaging and sustainability in general a governance priority has tremendous impact. Among other things, they have the largest truck fleet in the world, the largest electric bill in the country and more people in uniform than all the branches of the military combined.”

The ripple effect that Wal-Mart’s initiative could have on the way products are packaged is enormous. The scorecard evaluates metrics including greenhouse gas emissions, product-to-package ratio, the amount of renewable energy used in packaging production and transportation emissions.

“It is probably the most significant initiative that is transforming the whole packaging industry,” says Marc Alt, president of Marc Alt + Partners, an agency dedicated to sustainable innovation, and a founding co-chair of the American Institute of Graphic Artists’ AIGA Center for Sustainable Design. “Companies like P&G and Unilever have to look at their packaging in order to get the incentives at Wal-Mart. It’s a good way for the industry to get gently prodded into rethinking its supply chain.”

Small changes can mean big results. Last year, at the Clinton Global Initiative, Wal-Mart announced its commitment to sell only concentrated liquid laundry detergent in all of its U.S. stores by May of this year. Pointing to Unilever’s introduction of All Small-and-Mighty laundry detergent, Wal-Mart executive Leslie Dach told the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in January, “We hope our commitment will help move the industry from standard-sized to concentrated-liquid detergent bottles.” Estimating the annual purchases of all Wal-Mart consumers, he added up the impact over three years, saving more than 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic resin and 125 million pounds of cardboard. “Think about it,” he told the audience. “This is just one product category. What if retailers changed the game across their products? What kind of effect could that have on climate change?”

While Wal-Mart, which will hold its annual invitation-only Sustainable Packaging Exposition this month to join vendors and suppliers, is pushing manufacturers to examine their practices, designers are leading the push for change on a micro level. Valerie Casey, a designer at Ideo in Palo Alto, Calif., is founder of the Designers Accord, a year-old coalition of designers, educators, researchers, engineers, consultants and corporations that are working together to create positive environmental and social impact. More than sixteen thousand members strong, the initiative has been endorsed by the design community’s two largest professional organizations, the AIGA and the Industrial Designers Society of America.