Walmart's new sustainability initiative is coming after all our emissions

Mega-retailer's new Project Gigaton initiative invites 'suppliers to join in a commitment to eliminate 1 gigaton of emissions from their operations and supply chains.'

By Paul Studebaker

I’m very fond of Matt’s cookies. Peanut butter, chocolate chip, but especially oatmeal raisin and fig bars—they’re not sold everywhere but I’ve sought them out for 25 years, willing to pay a little more for their quasi-homemade goodness and the honesty of one-pound packages (two pounds for the fig bars). Sixteen cookies, 16 ounces—like poetry for dessert.

But food prices have not stayed down. Talk all you want about low inflation and the Consumer Price Index, when I go to the grocery store, I get sticker shock. So I’m not too proud to admit that I look for better prices, and that often brings me to Walmart. I don’t like it because Walmart doesn’t have everything I need and want, and it drives the places that do either out of business or into becoming expensive niche boutiques. So I try hard to shop elsewhere, but when my wallet goes flat enough, there I am.

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It’s been hard to feel good about Walmart. About the time Sam Walton died (in 1992), it seemed to drop its “Made in the USA” and source-locally principles, then went on to become the symbol of worker oppression in retail. In recent years, it has turned around and re-embraced Walton’s creeds, adding some worker benefits, a minimum wage, and significant nods to the environment including a corporate global responsibility program to reduce its Scope 1 emissions (from sources owned or controlled by the organization) and Scope 2 emissions (from consumption of purchased energy) by 18% by 2025.

Now it’s coming after Scope 3 emissions, which means yours and mine. Project Gigaton is a new Walmart initiative “inviting suppliers to join in a commitment to eliminate 1 gigaton of emissions from their operations and supply chains. How much is 1 Gigaton? That’s the equivalent to taking more than 211 million passenger vehicles off of U.S. roads and highways for an entire year,” says the press release. For reference, the total number of U.S. passenger vehicles is about 260 million.

More packaging per cookie. More plastic, more cardboard, more truckloads, more forklifting, more shelf-stocking, more trips to the store if I’m not careful.

While the term “gigaton” was popularized to describe nuclear weapons, and refers to the explosive force of a billion tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT), here it means a billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions. Global CO2 emissions are currently about 40 billion tons per year, so whether you measure it in cars or carbon, a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions is significant. But the company doesn’t talk in annual terms—it says it will work to reduce “emissions from upstream and downstream Scope 3 sources by one billion tons (a gigaton) between 2015 and 2030.”

Walmart invites its suppliers to take those tons out of its production, operations and supply chain, and is offering an “emissions reduction toolkit” to help you. It has identified energy, agriculture, waste, packaging, deforestation and product use and design as areas where participating suppliers are encouraged to focus their commitments.

"Supply chains are the new frontier of sustainability. The journey products take from source to shelf will collectively shape our planet’s future," said Carter Roberts, president and CEO, World Wildlife Fund. "Project Gigaton is a testament to the transformative impact that leaders of industry can have on our greatest common challenges. As more companies follow in the footsteps of Walmart and their suppliers, we can achieve the critical mass needed to address climate change. Today's commitment represents an important step toward a safer and more prosperous future."

The folks who bake my beloved Matt’s cookies recently went in the opposite direction and made my personal future a little less prosperous by reducing their package weight from one pound to 14 ounces (fig bars from two pounds to 28 ounces). Fourteen cookies instead of 16, using the exact same packaging and shipping air. More packaging per cookie. More plastic, more cardboard, more truckloads, more forklifting, more shelf stocking, more trips to the store if I’m not careful.

I hope Matt hears from Walmart.