Walmart goes local, supports small farmers

farm workers - walmart supports local-produceYou know the "go local" movement has hit the mainstream when the world's largest retailer and biggest seller of grocery items in this country, announces a "global commitment to sustainable agriculture." One the company says will help small and medium-sized farmers expand and grow, reduce the environmental impact of farming, and strengthen local economies.

Those are some lofty goals, but when a company is the size of Walmart -- with annual sales of more than $400 billion -- even the smallest environmental effort can have a significant effect.

Walmart says its sustainable agriculture plan has three parts: support farmers and their communities, produce more food with fewer resources and less waste, and to sustainably source key agriculture products.

Walmart says it wants to increase the income of the small and medium farmers it sources from between 10% to 15% and that in the U.S., Walmart will double its sale of locally-sourced produce and increase its purchase of select U.S. crops. Walmart will ask suppliers about the water, energy, fertilizer and pesticide they use per unit of food produced, with a number of goals including plans to invest more than $1 billion in its global fresh supply chain in the next five years, and reduce food waste in its emerging market stores and clubs by 10%-15%, and in stores and clubs in its other markets by the end of 2015.

When it comes to sustainable sourcing, Walmart will focus on two of what it claims are the major contributors to global deforestation; palm oil and beef production. The retailer will now require sustainably-sourced palm oil for all Walmart private brand products globally by the end of 2015, something it claims will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by five million metric tons by that time, in the U.S. and U.K. markets alone. It will also source beef only from producers not contributing to the destruction of the rainforest.

There are a number of country-specific goals and an impressive list of agencies and experts consulted in this plan. No matter how credentialed the participants, or lofty the goals, Walmart will certainly be criticized for its motives or for not going far enough. But how can helping small businesses prosper be a bad thing? It's not the mom and pop shop on Main St., the death of which Walmart is so often credited with, but it's something. And it will have an impact on our food supply.

Walmart began emphasizing sustainability at the beginning of the decade, and has since implemented a number of practices like establishing energy saving practices and encouraging suppliers to reduce waste, streamline packaging and cut energy use. Today, it meticulously tracks its efforts in the area with some impressive results.

Even earlier, I remember that while touring new stores and formats in the late 1990s, Walmart executives proudly showed off features like skylights in supercenters to reduce reliance on electrical lighting on sunny days, and systems that could sense natural light and adjust the artificial lighting as needed.

These were early efforts and Walmart's program is far more sophisticated today. Yes, many of these initiatives help to reduce costs and improve the efficiency (and profit margin) of the company, but will the family farmers care if it helps them to prosper? Or shoppers, when they bite into a locally grown apple?
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