Wal-Mart exec foresees eco-ratings for all

Wal-Mart WMT has big hopes for a new effort to develop eco-ratings for products it sells — one that goes far beyond its own stores.

"We see this as a universal — this is not a U.S. standard," Wal-Mart Chairman and CEO Mike Duke told a gathering at company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. "Across the world, this standard would work across all retailers, all suppliers."

The meeting was intended to provide some details of Wal-Mart's sustainability efforts, starting with the ratings that company officials hope to develop in the next few years.

Shoppers won't see green ratings on products for several years, according to a researcher involved in developing the index Wal-Mart will apply.

Duke said the effort would involve three steps.

First, he said, Wal-Mart suppliers will be sent a questionnaire with 15 questions to be answered. The questions, Duke said, will deal with how and where an item is produced.

"They are familiar questions that would not be a surprise to many of our suppliers," he said.

The first question on an example of the questionnaire displayed at the meeting was: "Have you measured your corporate greenhouse gas emissions?"

Next, Duke said, Wal-Mart will help create a consortium of universities to collaborate with governments, suppliers and retailers in developing the sustainability index.

"Wal-Mart is providing the initial funding for this, but we do want other companies to participate," Duke said. "Our goal is not to create our own index, but to spur development of a common database ... that all of us can rely upon."

The final step, according to Duke, will be making the information available to customers in the form of index numbers "to tell customers about the sustainability of a product that they're purchasing."

As details about the sustainability effort emerged on several websites this week, questions were raised about costs.

"Suppliers are going to have to absorb the cost increases," retail industry consultant Burt Flickinger said Wednesday.

Wal-Mart focused on the possibility that development of the sustainability program would ultimately result in greater production efficiency, actually lowering costs.

Duke also said suppliers would not be asked to provide private information that could give competitors an edge.