Even for shoppers who want to support the greenest products, it’s hard to get beyond marketing labels and really know what to buy.
To help, Walmart is launching a new badge system for its online store that could steer shoppers to the most sustainable and worker-friendly diapers, digital cameras, and everything else.
The system is based on a Sustainability Index that the retail giant began creating in 2009 to rate products on its store shelves. Walmart sent out questionnaires to suppliers, developed with a nonprofit called The Sustainability Consortium, that are specific to environmental and labor considerations for different industries and products. For example, for shampoo, that might involve whether a company discloses ingredients and how much water the manufacturer uses. The company says it is on track to have 70% of its business by sales covered by suppliers that use the Index by the end of 2017.
A product can receive the new “leaders” badge in two ways. Either a supplier has to be the top scorer on the Index for a product category–for example, it must sell the highest-scoring printers among all of Walmart’s suppliers–or, for products where many suppliers are doing a good job, it has to score at least above an 80 (out of 100). In total, 10,000 items are badged representing 3,000 unique products.
Shoppers will see the badge on the online product page, and will also be able to filter their searches to see only badged products. The badges will also direct consumers to an online portal where they can find much more information about the Index. Eventually, if the roll-out goes well, Walmart could bring the badge to its brick-and-mortar stores too, like it has with its “Made in the USA” or women-owned business labels.
The company plans to watch what customers are clicking on and analyze whether badged products see an uptick in sales. Rob Kaplan, director of product sustainability at Walmart, says the badge system is unlikely to be a “drastic game changer” for increasing sales of a particular product, though it’ll appeal to a subset of customers interested in shopping with sustainability in mind. “We’re intending to inspire a race to the top with our suppliers, and that’s where we’ll see a lot of the impact coming from,” he says.
For Walmart, the goal is to show consumers that sustainability is possible even at low prices. Critics of Walmart, however, say it’s the cheap prices and throwaway consumption culture they inspire that’s inherently unfriendly to the planet. However, that’s a problem that a badge system won’t fix anyway.