“Sustainability Leader” Badges On Walmart Products Don’t Mean Items Are Good For Environment

The "made by Sustainability Leaders" badge on this 150' roll of bubble tape is not necessarily an indicator of the product's environmental impact.

The “made by Sustainability Leaders” badge on this 150′ roll of bubble tape is not necessarily an indicator of the product’s environmental impact.

If you see a product tagged with a “sustainability leaders” badge on the Walmart website, you might think this is an indication that this item is more environmentally friendly than others. And you might be correct; but you might also be mistaken. Because the truth is that this badge has virtually nothing to do with the product being advertised.

In a piece for Grist.org, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance Stacy Mitchell cites the example of this 150′ roll of bubble wrap that is tagged with the sustainability badge.

Given the availability of more sustainable and eco-friendly packaging options, it seems odd that this particular product, which doesn’t appear to be substantially different from other bubble wraps, would be singled out for this label.

But the key to that answer lies in the full wording of the badge: “made by Sustainability Leaders.” (That’s not a typo. The actual design of the badge has “made by” in lower case.) It’s not about the product, but about the company that makes the product.

And though there’s no indication on the product page of what the badge means, clicking on the “Global Responsibility” link at the bottom of the page, and then clicking on “Environmental Sustainability” and then clicking “Sustainability Leaders” will lead you to this page, where you will eventually get to this disclaimer:

“The Sustainability Leaders badge does not make representations about the environmental or social impact of an individual product, only that the manufacturer has scored well enough to earn a badge across all of the products they make in that category. For example, a television identified with a Sustainability Leaders badge indicates that the manufacturer has been identified as a Sustainability Leader among its peers in the television category for its sustainability management practices.”

So this doesn’t even mean that this unnamed TV manufacturer is making sustainable products. Just that it’s “sustainable practices” are among the best in the category of TV makers.

Companies earn the badge — which can be placed on all of their products — by periodically responding to a survey of questions regarding their practices. But the actual questions are not a matter of public record, so it’s impossible to say what factors are being considered to determine a manufacturer’s relative sustainability.

Walmart also doesn’t reveal the survey scores, so consumers don’t know whether that TV manufacturer is indeed running a sustainable business or is just the least environmentally unfriendly among its particular peer group.

There’s nothing wrong with cheerleading companies with sustainable business practices, but we question the decision to place these badges on all products from these companies without a clear disclosure that the particular item may not be any more sustainable than products from competitors, especially given the lack of transparency in the process for earning these badges.

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