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August 16, 2009

Comments

David Connor

I agree the consortium gives off a feeling of trepidation. I'm all for the private sector leading on such issues but this does raise the issues of ownership and motives.

The move is probably more than mere philanthropy in a similar way Google.org is more than just a philanthropic endeavour (but at least they openly brand it as theirs!).

I'd like to remain optimistic but Walmart's track record across other agendas will keep me on my guard.

Bruce K

Joel, thanks for some real inside information on the Consortium. I am certain some of the corporate participants feel compelled to join either because they are so closely tied to Walmart or because they are anxious about what might emerge form this undertaking. Because of the heft of Walmart, it is undoubtedly going to be very influential in terms of product ratings, regardless of the scope. Given how tight budgets are at the moment, I am actually a little surprised how many companies were able to step up and join. While I applaud Professor Golden's desire for transparency, what strikes me as more important is stakeholder input and not merely visibility into the process. The Consortium should take a cue from the WRI's stakeholder processes.

Susan Harris

Joel - Green Tick Certification from New Zealand has already developed a totally independent and scientifically sound set of life-cycle based sustainability standards for any product or service anywhere.

Products that pass an independent Green Tick audit get to use the Green Tick brand on their packaging - a powerful green symbol that everybody understands instantly.

We undertook a 5 year research project 2000-2005 in Australia and New Zealand to develop the standards, published peer reviewed scientific and marketing papers in an independent journal (www.emeraldinsight.com), and presented our system to the UK and EU Govts at the 2005 International Sustainability Conference in Switzerland.

Our certification system, and our status as a government-approved certification authority has been accepted by the Australian and NZ Governments. Approval by the US Govt is pending, with applications soon underway with UK and EU Govts.

The first company to get Green Tick Certification on their products enjoyed sales increases of 52%. And we are the only certification agency that publishes our audit reports for free on-line at www.greentick.com.

So, it's all been done already by the same people (Kiwis) who split the atom first (Ernest Rutherford), and climbed Mount Everest first (Ed Hillary)!

And Green Tick solves the credibility issue for consumers - we have no financial connection to any industry, government, or NGO, so consumers can be assured that Green Tick is completely independent and totally transparent.

Ted

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Maura Nunez

This sounds similar to the US Climate Action Partnership, in which major energy-related companies (Duke, General Electric) are pushing for cap and trade regulation--just to make sure they can be at the table when the details of this regulation are nailed out. These details can be structured to favor one company's practices and history over another, and can result in millions of $$ in savings or profits.

The Sustainability Consortium's planners might honestly claim transparency by keeping stakeholders informed of decisions made. But a quick glance at the membership structure shows that the companies that can pay more have more say in WHAT decisions are made. Tellingly, NGOs are not even allowed to participate in any decision-making processes.

Another thing: why remake the wheel? If the US government is reviweing the Green Tick standards (and the Arkansas professors would be fools if they weren't aware of this), there must be some other benefit....

Gil Friend

Thanks for your careful work on unpacking this, Joel. I'd like to assume best (if naive) intentions behind this, but optics _do_ matter. Selling seats at the table - or even appearing to do so - for something of such potentially large importance doesn't only raise questions of propriety; it raises the question of whether the requisite variety of experience and insight _will_ make its way to the table.

JohnPaul Kusz

Dear Joel:
Thank you for your informative update on the Wal-Mart Sustainability Consortium.

Like many of your readers. I depend on you for timely information on developing stories. This is certainly one of them.

While I applaud Wal-Mart's leadership in pursuing the issue of product labeling, the implicit exclusivity of the stakeholder group and the cost of entry is troubling. Asking a supplier, especially in this economy, to commit $75,000.00 (three-year commitment at $25,000.00 per year) or an NGO to commit $30,000.00, is effectively a nonstarter for many would-be players. It's a 'pay-to-play" scheme.

Also of concern is the likely lack of participation by established groups, among them some well-recognized NGOs that could move the agenda forward with their knowledge and experience from years of work in this area. Both here in the US and internationally, groups like Green Seal have committed time and energy to developing protocols for product labeling. The criteria and protocol have been developed by multi-disciplined stakeholder groups.

As you have implied, developing comprehensive LCA-based labeling for thousands of products is daunting at the very least. Might it not be more appropriate to start with what is likely one of the most pressing issues, like the carbon footprint? There are schemes involving for carbon footprinting of products that could be the basis of the Wal-Mart program. These could be built on and expanded to include more comprehensive criteria over time such as the hydrological footprint, virtual water contained, and social equity and governance issues related to the supplier. Carbon footprinting alone would be difficult enough, but to start with it and build upon it might get information that is most important to the consumer in a much more timely manner. It would also provide for a less steep learning curve.

There are other benefits that a simple carbon footprinting scheme might allow, such as the building a platform for complementary supporting policies and potential "sustainable" funding strategies for the entire endeavor. Without embedding a structure that would allow complementary policy to institutionalize the effort beyond the gates of Wal-Mart and a funding strategy, to ensure its long-term viability, the effort may become an unfunded mandate or aspiration - another project or program. Since the funding in its current form (philanthropy) is subject to the discretion and self-interest of the philanthropist, what happens if the players back away from the table?

Importantly, the scale and the scope of this initiative will likely overshadow or displace other potential initiatives. If it does not succeed, the time lost may hobble other sincere efforts and threaten the pursuit of future initiatives. There's a lot at stake here.

Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts....
JohnPaul Kusz, FIDSA,FRSA
Associate Director
Center for Sustainable Enterprise
IIT Stuart Graduate School of Business
Chicago, Illinois 60661
www.stuart.iit.edu/cse
jpkusz@stuart.iit.edu

Roger

This group smacks of conflict-of-interest, corporate-centric policy manipulating/maneuvering to ensure the rules-of-the-road favor the members.

Or, probably more likely, an effort to impress WMT category managers that they are big enough to sit at the grown-up’s dinner table.

Can you imagine the consequences if the big automakers had formed a group to define safety, fuel-economy, and smog-standards in the 1960s and 1970s, or tobacco companies had defined cigarette label warnings and ad-spending restrictions? Somehow I think L.A. would still be choked with smog, and cartoon camels would be entertaining my teenage kids.

I’m unimpressed.

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