Walmart and EDF Forged an Unlikely Partnership. 17 Years Later, What’s Changed? | Civil Eats

Walmart and EDF Forged an Unlikely Partnership. 17 Years Later, What’s Changed?

We talk with Elizabeth Sturcken for an up-close look at the sustainability alliance between the environmental nonprofit and the retail behemoth.

Aerial view of cargo containers, semi trailers, industrial warehouse, storage building and loading docks, renewable energy plants, Bavaria, Germany

Elizabeth Sturcken firmly believes in the power of big companies to make small, meaningful changes that lead to global environmental progress. You’d have to, in order to do what she does, which is work alongside powerhouses like McDonald’s and United Airlines to push them towards setting and meeting climate goals.

Sturcken directs climate impact inside the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) division devoted to corporate partnerships. And her biggest partnership so far is with Walmart. Sturcken has been working with Walmart since 2006, and her team continues to work with the company on its Project Gigaton initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chains.

Walanthropy: Walmart and the Waltons Wield Unprecedented Influence Over Food, Policy, and the Planet.

Read all the stories in our series:

  • Overview: The Long Reach of the Walmart-Walton Empire
    In this ongoing investigative series, we take a detailed look at Walmart and its founding family’s influence over the American food system, over the producers and policymakers who shape it, and how its would-be critics are also its bedfellows.
  • Walmart’s ‘Regenerative Foodscape’ Walmart’s efforts to redefine itself as a regenerative company are at odds with its low-cost model, and combined with the Walton family’s vast investments in regenerative agriculture, have the potential to remake the marketplace.
  • Walmart and EDF Forged an Unlikely Partnership. 17 Years Later, What’s Changed? We talk with Elizabeth Sturcken for an up-close look at the sustainability alliance between the environmental nonprofit and the retail behemoth.
  • Op-ed: Walmart’s Outsized Catch: Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation have relied on a debatable definition of “sustainable” seafood that allows it to achieve its sourcing goals without fundamentally changing its business model.
  • Diving—and Dying—for Red Gold: The Human Cost of Honduran Lobster: The Walton Family Foundation invested in a Honduran lobster fishery, targeting its sustainability and touting its success. Ten years later, thousands of workers have been injured or killed.
  • Walmart’s Pandemic Port Squeeze: While most retailers dealt with congested ports and unprecedented shipping prices, Walmart chartered its own ships, increased sales, and used its market gains to sideline competitors. Then it weighed in on shipping reform.
  • Walmart Heirs Bet Big on Journalism: A wash of Walton family funding to news media is creating echo chambers in environmental journalism, and beyond. Are editorial firewalls up to the task?

The work—and especially the Walmart partnership—has earned EDF both praise and criticism over the years. Some say EDF’s environmental approach is practical and designed for maximum impact, given the power of corporations to effect change at scale; others see only enabling greenwashing in the organization’s willingness to work with companies that often take maximum credit for minimal improvements.

Critics also say that pointing to Walmart’s progress is very much in the interest of EDF: Over the past 20 years, EDF has received more than $100 million from the Walton Family Foundation. In 2021 alone, the Foundation provided EDF with nearly $10.5 million in funding. Lukas Walton’s Builders’ Initiative, meanwhile, gave EDF $530,000, and Ben Walton’s Zoma Foundation gave $140,000. EDF characterizes the relationships as completely separate and says it does not take funding from corporations it works with, including Walmart.

In this interview, Sturcken spoke to Civil Eats about EDF’s work with Walmart, its impacts, and admitted limitations.

Walmart’s goal to become a regenerative company “is a huge, ambitious aspiration. It is where they need to head, and it’s where we need to head as a planet,” she said. “And yet, of course, they’re far from even being a sustainable company despite their leadership over . . . 20 years.”

Walmart’s sustainability work started around 2005, and it seems like EDF started working with the company pretty soon after that. Is that right?

It started with these conversations that were held in the basement of a hotel in Fayetteville, [Arkansas] with a bunch of environmental groups and other civil society advocates. And no one wanted to admit that they had those meetings at that time because Walmart was really under attack from all angles.

I think that EDF saw an opportunity in that Walmart was the most powerful company in the United States—arguably in the world—to try to drive ambitious environmental outcomes. So, we decided to jump in and try to work with them. We invested in being the first and only NGO to set up an office in Bentonville, Arkansas.

I was just coming back from maternity leave in 2005 . . . and when I heard about the initial conversations with Walmart, I’m like, “That’s gonna be big. I want to do that.” So, I jumped in to lead this work, and I have led it for all of these years.

In a 2009 video of you speaking to Walmart leadership, you said two interesting things. First, you said, “I’ve never seen a company embrace sustainability as fully as Walmart.” But then later, you said, “The world will celebrate with you when you show measurable progress towards these goals.” It sounded like you were trying to applaud but also challenge them. Can you say more?

For over 25 years, I’ve been at EDF working with companies, and when we started out, it was an open question whether there was a win-win, like a business win along with an environmental win. And now, there’s no question that that is the case. Not that being a sustainable company doesn’t cost money, it does. But just that the business benefits are tangible, real, and they cover all sorts of different things. There can be cost savings. There are PR benefits. There is employee engagement and customer engagement. And this is key for the food and ag space: there’s supply chain risk reduction.

What we have seen over the years is if a company embraces sustainability and incorporates it deep in the business, there is this positive feedback loop. They continue to do more and step up and lead even further. So, the ripple effect with Walmart goes back to those early days where they communicated to their suppliers that, “We want you to lead.”

We got Walmart to set the first supply chain carbon reduction goal of any retailer. I believe it called for a reduction or avoidance of 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses. We jumped in and . . . ultimately figured out where the big buckets of carbon were and where the big opportunities in different product categories and different parts of the value chain were. The answer was to dive in where there was a lot of opportunity both for carbon reduction and for business engagement.

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That initial goal around supply chain carbon eventually led to Project Gigaton, right?

That’s right. They ended up meeting and exceeding their goal. It was product energy efficiency, and it was engaging in food and ag . . . and as I said, going after where the lowest hanging fruit was where there was a positive business benefit.

One of the areas of opportunity was fertilizer optimization. That was an opportunity both because . . . fertilizer itself, if it’s synthetic, it’s a petrochemical. So, that has embedded greenhouse gases. And if fertilizer is not taken up by the plant, [nitrous oxide] gets into the atmosphere, and it has more global warming potential [compared to carbon dioxide]. And fertilizer is one of the biggest inputs at the farm level, so there were business benefits to optimizing fertilizer use on the ground.

But it’s not easy to reach that deep into your supply chain and engage on the farm level. For Walmart, it involved bringing their whole supply chain along. So, engaging with big suppliers of food and ag products and trying to make clear what the opportunity was and then work together to try and figure out something that would work for them to engage more deeply in their supply chain. So, it was definitely a ripple-effect project.

“The best way to describe Project Gigaton is that Walmart is rolling out the red carpet to its supply chain and saying, “Come with us on this journey to sustainability. There are business benefits to doing so.'”

Can you say more about how that project actually worked? They don’t buy directly from a farmer growing corn in Iowa, so are they going to the meat companies and saying, “We’re going to send EDF out to farms that grow feed for you.” What were the logistics?

You’re testing the bounds of my memory a little bit, Lisa . . . because it was also my team that was executing this work. But, it was very much working with Walmart’s sustainability team to engage their suppliers. For us, I work in the part of EDF that works with companies. We rely on pooling the best-in-class science from other parts of EDF. So, pooling our knowledge of how to optimize nitrogen . . . and pooling other leaders in our ecosystems team that had direct connections with entities that work in the big corn-growing regions.

I understand that it’s been a long time. But I do have other specific questions on this. EDF shared a lot of specific numbers that we talked about earlier related to this project. Like surpassing that goal of 20 million metric tons of carbon emissions reduced. I’m really interested in what kind of measurement was happening on the ground. What are those numbers based on, and how were you tracking those emissions reductions?

They were numbers that were reported to us. We were engaged quite deeply in helping collect that data. But I believe that it was all self-reported data, which is definitely challenging. It always is with this kind of voluntary corporate work.

Yes, and I have the same question about Project Gigaton. Is that all self-reported data, too? Walmart says that its suppliers are reducing emissions and then the company releases numbers, but there’s no way to understand where the data is coming from, what kinds of reductions the companies might be making and how they’re measuring, or which companies are making them. How can we make sense of those numbers?

Along with WWF [World Wildlife Fund], we at EDF are engaged with Project Gigaton and are working with Walmart on this effort. Internally, Walmart has a team that’s creating a lot of the tools and technology that helps immediately flag any things that are suspicious in terms of double counting or numbers that are too big or don’t necessarily make sense. And to try to double check with the suppliers. Again, all of it is self-reported.

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But many of these companies are very much at the beginning of their journey, and Walmart has really been at the forefront of bringing these companies along. We are at this time where we know the IPCC [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says that we need to reduce emissions by 50 percent, and emissions are still increasing. So, we know we need to move faster, and yet the challenge is you have to get companies on that journey so that they can actually start to see those business benefits.

The best way to describe Project Gigaton is that Walmart is rolling out the red carpet to its supply chain and saying, “Come with us on this journey to sustainability. There are business benefits to doing so.” They’re laying the breadcrumbs along the path.

“Walmart operates in an environment that lacks any regulation in the United States on climate, right? Even the amazing Inflation Reduction Act is all carrots and no stick.”

If I could wave a magic wand, every single company in Walmart’s supply chain would be setting a goal for its scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions that is aligned with science and be creating a plan and reporting on that transparently and have third-party data analysis. That would be great. But in the United States, at least, where there is no regulation, this [project] is what creates this powerful change—a company that purchases a lot of products and spends billions of dollars in its supply chain saying to its suppliers, “We need you to join us on this journey. Here’s how to do it. Here are the tools. Here’s how to set a smart goal.”

I hear you, but the way other people look at it is that Walmart is so powerful at this point. And while some of the food companies in its supply chains might be just starting out on their sustainability journey, many are well-resourced companies with a lot of money and a lot of power. Other people I’ve spoken to have said, “Rather than inviting them on this journey, if Walmart just said, ‘We’re not going to buy from you if you continue to participate in deforestation,’” for example, the companies would do it, because they don’t want to give up Walmart as a customer. What do you think of that argument? Given how much power they have and how important this is, couldn’t they demand more?

Walmart operates in an environment that lacks any regulation in the United States on climate, right? Even the amazing Inflation Reduction Act is all carrots and no stick. So, in some ways, it’s truly amazing leadership what Walmart has done on sustainability, and it continues to press forward in bigger and bigger ways.

It is true that I would love for Walmart to require thorough, performance-based environmental outcomes from its suppliers. That is an ideal. I always want companies to be more ambitious. I want them to lead on pushing for climate policy, because that piece is super critical. I want them to lead on driving actual results in their own operations for climate and nature and toxics and all of those issues. And I also want them to fully engage their supply chain and to do so in a way that really requires progress. That’s the ultimate goal.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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