Is Big Box becoming Big Environment?

Wall Street Journal reported today that Wal-Mart "is requiring manufacturers to figure out the full environmental costs of making their products, and plans to distill the data into simple green ratings that shoppers will eventually see alongside prices for everything from T-shirts to televisions."

The global retail behemoth is "making the move as a way to get ahead of potential U.S. environmental labeling regulations — similar requirements are already popping up in Britain and Japan — and to set a standard on its own favorable terms that the retail industry can adopt to communicate the green hue of goods they sell, according to people familiar with the company's plans."

Wal-Mart will start Thursday, asking its suppliers to answer a set of 15 questions (to be answered by October) about consequences of manufacturing processes in areas such as water use and carbon dioxide emissions.

The broader goal is to build a comprehensive sustainability index, which will measure the full environmental footprint of each product Wal-Mart sells — for example, how much it contributes to global warming, whether it is made with toxic chemicals, if it contains wood harvested in ways that deplete natural stocks.

The index will judge products not just by the environmental costs of producing them, but by the impact over their entire life, and company buyers will be judged in part by whether they improve the numerical ratings of the products over time.

The result, according to scholars and environmental consultants advising the discount giant, is that Wal-Mart may carry different products in the future as it discovers the hidden costs of what it now sells.

But does green automatically mean sustainable? Not necessarily, says Jay Golden, a professor at Arizona State University. "You can design something that is carbon neutral, that does not contribute to climate change, and yet is still detrimental to human health in other ways," he said in the WSJ article. "So you have to look comprehensively at what sustainability really means, and that is what Wal-Mart is trying to do here in a very big way."