A Greener Walmart?

Last month, Walmart announced “its commitment to create a more sustainable food system.” As The New York Times noted in its report on the announcement, Walmart is “the United States’ largest grocer, and food is its biggest business. So it has enormous clout with food producers and food processing companies…” As a major player, if Walmart succeeds in its “four pillar” initiatives, its efforts can have a significant impact on how food is produced and sold in the US. The four pillars (affordable, accessible, healthier, safe & transparent) touch upon the main aspects of our food system, namely consumer rights, food safety, and public health issues.

This kind of initiative highlights how big corporations can create standards that exceed the requirements outlined in government regulation. The FDA does provide voluntary retail food regulation standards for companies, in addition to its binding regulations. Even still, retail chains and/or trade associations may further require more stringent standards. The Walmart initiative seems to be responding to a number of concerns, especially climate change, with the launch of its Climate Smart Agriculture Platform. It’s also in the interest of retailers to maintain consumer trust. As GMOs have begun to receive increased consumer attention in the US, different companies (such as Chipotle and Whole Foods Market) have responded with labeling standards that are not required by the government.

Walmart, along with many other retailers, has also publically toyed with lobbying Congress for a national labeling plan for GMOs. The recent efforts (California, Vermont, Colorado, and Oregon) aimed at legislation for GMO labeling may eventually become moot, if major retailers decide to take on those standards themselves. Corporate preference might be for a national plan to make sure that all competitors must undertake the same changes and to streamline the process. But if Congress doesn’t act quickly enough, corporations may implement these standards themselves in order to meet consumer demands.