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6 lessons on how to scale sustainability, from Walmart and Grove Collaborative

A big platform gives companies a big opportunity to make a real climate impact. Here’s how to do it.

6 lessons on how to scale sustainability, from Walmart and Grove Collaborative
[Photo: Gugurat/iStock]

How can companies scale up sustainability efforts to meet the urgency of challenges like the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity? At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Walmart executive vice president and chief sustainability officer Kathleen McLaughlin sat down with Stuart Landesberg, the cofounder and CEO of Grove Collaborative, a quickly-growing, sustainability-focused online retailer, to discuss the issue.

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1: Set ambitious goals

When it set a goal 15 years ago to reach 100% renewable energy, zero waste, and a sustainable supply chain, Walmart was early compared to many other businesses, and the company’s aspirations were even more ambitious because of its size. The CEO at the time “put it out there, and it really lit the company on fire,” McLaughlin said in the panel. This year, the company announced that it now wants to become regenerative—instead of just reducing emissions, the company will focus on restoring nature—and will reach zero emissions across its operations by 2040 without using offsets.

Grove Collaborative, which launched in 2016, built sustainability into its business from the beginning. “We put a stake in the ground that we want to be 100% plastic-free,” says Landesberg. “We’re already carbon neutral and plastic neutral today. We want to be 100% plastic-free by 2025, which is an amazingly short timeline.”

2: Think beyond “sustainability”

Just trying to reduce environmental harm doesn’t go far enough, both executives agree. Grove “was founded on the premise that the time to do less harm has passed,” says Landesberg. “We’re actually at a point . . . where we need to be giving back to the ecosystems that our industries have depleted over time, and using commerce as a force to renew and regenerate our planet.”

At Walmart, as one example, that might mean helping the farmers that supply it with food adopt regenerative agriculture techniques that can improve soil health. “Really, as a society, we have to get to a point where the food that we consume, or the apparel that we wear, we figure out a way to make that consumption truly sustainable, which does mean regenerating the resources that it took to create that product,” McLaughlin says. “And decarbonizing—having zero emissions to create that product—generating no waste, protecting the people that were involved in making those products. To do that, across a broad array of categories that go beyond the footprint of any one retailer, or even any one consumer goods company. That’s the challenge.”

3: Help consumers think of themselves as sustainable consumers

Landesberg says that many customers start shopping at Grove without having a history of buying natural cleaning products. For the company, he says, its impact goes beyond the products it offers “to actually helping millions of consumers start to believe that they can live more sustainable lives in general. . . . That will create the sort of cascading impact where folks really put pressure on all of the companies like us to innovate and keep innovating for a more sustainable future.”

4: Find ways to keep products cost-competitive

Farmers in Mexico or India that are part of Walmart’s supply chain now work with the company to increase yields, reduce food waste, and access markets while bypassing middlemen, things that can help keep costs low as the end products become more sustainable.

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At Grove, design also plays a role. “We also look for disruptive business models that have net savings for the consumer,” says Landesberg. The company was the first to start selling concentrated surface cleaners with a reusable glass vessel. “Glass bottles are cheaper on a per-use basis than what you get in a 16-ounce plastic thing with a trigger,” he says. “But because we don’t have to make the whole vessel and ship the water across the country, the supply chain for us is much simpler. So our costs are lower, the cost to the consumer can be lower, and the cost to the environment because we’re shipping less water, because we’re able to have a packaging solution that is zero plastic, is lower . . . I think that the key here to success and scaling is making sure that every consumer in America knows that sustainability is not for the few, and breaking the misconception that this category costs more.”

5: Push for deeper change

The business case for some sustainability actions, like making buildings more efficient, is obvious: a company can immediately save money. Other changes require more persuasion. “As you start to get into things like shifting out of single-use packaging to reuse and refill models, for people who have a lot invested in the current way of producing things, it is hard to make that transition,” says McLaughlin. “The business case is still there, because you can show that in the longer term, that’s where the industry is going. That’s what the customer wants.” When Walmart pushed laundry suppliers to shift to concentrated detergent in smaller bottles, for example—and some brands worried that consumers would think they were getting less of each product—it took convincing. But the change, which reduces the total amount of plastic used, was a success. It also illustrated how sustainability could be scaled up quickly by working with multiple manufacturers across an industry at once.

6: Put sustainability at the core of your business

“Find that intersection between the social and environmental issues, the product services and operating model of your business, and the kinds of benefits that might be economic or around capability,” McLaughlin says. “The intersection of those is the sweet spot. Because if you can address environmental or social issues through business and just make it part of your business model, then you can do it all day long, right. It’s not philanthropy, it’s not corporate social responsibility. As important as those things are. It’s much more central, though, to how you operate your business. And that’s the kind of thing we need to go for.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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