This piece was written by ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell, and first published by Grist.
A giant, 150-foot roll of bubble wrap may not be your idea of an environmentally friendly product, but over at Walmart.com this one-pound ball of plastic now boasts a special “Sustainability Leaders” badge. It’s one of more than 3,000 products tagged with this new green label, which Walmart executives unveiled last week, together with a web portal where shoppers can find these items.
Dozens of news accounts hailed the giant retailer’s move as a significant step toward clearing up the confusion and misleading information that often greet consumers trying to make ecologically responsible choices. “The world’s largest retailer took a major and important step toward helping all of us shop more smartly,” declared corporate sustainability consultant Andrew Winston in Harvard Business Review. Triple Pundit concurred: “It’s about to get a lot easier for Walmart.com shoppers to make the responsible choice.”
Actually, a green-minded online shopper is likely to find Walmart’s new badge confusing, murky, and downright misleading. I searched the bubble wrap’s product page high and low for its secret sauce, the invisible feature that makes it a smarter choice amid the many seemingly less harmful packing options available, but found no explanation.
It turns out that the key to this mystery lies in a remarkable disclaimer tucked into the middle of the home page of Walmart’s sustainability shopping portal: “The Sustainability Leaders badge does not make representations about the environmental or social impact of an individual product.”
Well then. Once again Walmart has engineered an appealing media story about itself as a green innovator that has little to do with reality.
Here’s how the retailer’s new badge works: Walmart awards the label to products made by companies that it deems to be sustainability leaders in particular product categories, such as plastic toys or dairy foods. Those that win the label get to use it on all of their products in that category, regardless of how harmful or toxic some items might be.
To decide which of its suppliers are “leaders,” Walmart sends them a survey with about a dozen questions. Neither the questions nor the responses are public. The only thing we know is that the questions were developed by the Sustainability Consortium, a collaboration funded by about 100 big-name companies and groups, including many of the world’s largest retail and consumer products brands. Launched with a seed grant from Walmart, the consortium is managed by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University, both of which have deep financial ties to the company. Since 2009, the Walton family, the billionaire clan that owns more than half of Walmart, has donated at least $49 million to these two universities.