Wal-Mart On Sustainability

Wal-Mart’s Senior Horticultural Buyer Ron Coben shared the retail giant’s corporate vision for sustainability and what it means to growers last week at Grower Talks’ Greenhouse Experience in Cleveland.

Wal-Mart already has started working with growers and our industry at large on sustainable initiatives. Examples Coben shared, both related and unrelated to Wal-Mart, include:

  • The rollout of Earth Essentials as the Wal-Mart exclusive version of Ball Horticultural Co.’s Circle of Life program for independent garden centers. The Wal-Mart biodegradable pots are green versus brown. The program was in select markets this year.
  • Partnering with Ball on getting growers certified for sustainable practices through Veriflora.
  • Fairview Greenhouses in Missouri using turkey beaks and feet as fuel from a nearby turkey farm.
  • Growers and the University of Florida using Smart Grow pad made of human hair in China in the tops of nursery pots to reduce the need for watering, fertilizing and pest control treatments.
  • Flower breeders developing and promoting varieties that do not need plant growth regulators (PGR) or manual pinching, and others that can be grown cooler to save energy.
  • Ball Horticultural Co.’s Controlled Growth Seed pretreated with PGR to minimize the need to apply more later.
  • Wider availability of biodegradable pots

Coben opened his talk with a quote from Wal-Mart’s founder, Sam Walton: “You can’t just keep doing what works one time. Everything around you is changing. To succeed, you need to stay out in front of change.”

Coben acknowledged becoming sustainable will require change and for growers to embrace this opportunity. “No one in any industry can do it by themselves, that’s why I came here to help. Now is the time to step out and be part of revolutionary change.” 

A New Corporate Culture

One of the most enlightening parts of the presentation was the corporate video Wal-Mart made to communicate its inspiration and objectives. One of the first glimmers of a business opportunity on the sustainability side was an organic cotton yoga outfit that sold out very quickly. With Wal-Mart’s global scale and presence in just about every product line, the retailer has the size and scope to create sustainable business models and launch new products in nearly every industry. Wal-Mart aims to set the standard for what a company can do, not just in business but in society.

Being comfortable with criticism, Wal-Mart is pursuing big goals versus safe ones. The three areas Wal-Mart is tackling are climate, waste and products. The company has created 13 value networks to respond to concerns and spur innovations in specific industries. A 14th network will focus on alternative fuels. Vendors, manufacturers and academic experts and relevant stakeholders are part of these networks.

Most of the effort is focused on the store buildings themselves, making their construction, demolition and operations more sustainable. Innovation incubates in test stores and rolls out to new stores. The goal is for all existing stores to be 25 percent more efficient in seven years and for new stores to be 30 percent more efficient in four years. The stores are trying alternative energy generated by sun, wind and biofuels. Skylights reduce the need for as much electric lighting all day and refrigerated cases are equipped with doors and LED lighting that turns on as needed.

Wal-Mart’s trucks are also getting an overhaul with the goal of becoming 25 percent more efficient in three years and 50 percent more efficient in 10 years.

One of the best product success stories is the new All Mighty laundry detergent, which is a more concentrated version of the original in a smaller plastic container. “Gallons of water and diesel are saved, fewer trucks are needed and there’s less plastic resin,” Coben explains. “It’s not less product, just taking half the water out.”

To address garbage, Wal-Mart is baling plastic waste at the stores, such as shrink wrap and hangers. “The first quarter, we recovered 1,725 tons of plastic,” Coben says. “The haulers pick up the sandwich bales, which are repelletized into resin and sold to one of our suppliers who makes patio furniture. We close the loop. It’s renewable. Think of the issue with plastics in our industry. Maybe we can do something. What can we do with the plastic? How can we take it back?”

Jose Costa, whose family owns Costa Nursery in Goulds, Fla., traveled all the way from Miami to Cleveland just to hear Coben and the talk that followed featuring former Home Depot buyer Vinny Naab and former Wal-Mart buyer John Orendorf sharing their experiences and views on life at the big boxes and working with growers. At the end of Coben’s talk, Costa said, “This is eye opening for me. There’s a lot we can do with our trucking fleet and bringing stuff in with less packaging.”

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