How Walmart plans to achieve zero emissions

Retail Gets Real episode 283: Taking a holistic and strategic approach to sustainability across the industry
Sr. Director, Content Strategy
September 13, 2022

This episode originally aired March 1, 2022.

When it comes to moving the needle on climate change, one business’s actions are not enough. But if you happen to work for one of the largest retail companies in the world, what you say and do around sustainability and climate can make a huge difference.

Sustainable retail

Dive deeper into the latest innovations in sustainability and the retail industry.

On this week’s episode of Retail Gets Real, we talk to Walmart Senior Director of Sustainability Zach Freeze about how the company approaches sustainability from the top down, makes big goals, challenges its partners and provides leadership along the way for the whole industry.

“We are in proudly over 10,000 communities around the world. We have over 2 million associates, and the changing climate is going to affect us all,” Freeze says. “And so as Walmart, we have a role to play.” Among those climate goals is to cut emissions to zero across the company’s global operations by 2040.

The company’s Project Gigaton was launched to address sustainability within its supply chain and network of suppliers with a goal of reducing emissions by one gigaton by 2030.

Listen to the full podcast to learn more about how sustainability impacts all the functional teams within the company, why transparency with customers and associates is so important and the challenging work yet to be done.

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Episode transcript

Bill Thorne:         Welcome to Retail Gets Real where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone everywhere everyday. I'm Bill Thorne and on this episode of Retail Gets Real, we're talking to Zach Freeze, senior director for sustainability at Walmart. Now we're gonna talk to Zach about Walmart's approach to climate and its evolving sustainability efforts and what it's like to lead them for one of the most influential retailers in the world. So Zach, welcome to Retail Gets Real. How are you?

Zach Freeze:  Thank you, Bill. Pleasure to be here, doing well.

Bill Thorne:         Thank you. Good. Tell us a little bit about your role at Walmart and you know, how you got there.

Zach Freeze:         Sure, Bill. I've been at Walmart for about 15 years now, which is pretty amazing, for me to say out loud, because it doesn't feel that long and in retail, you know, the years go by quickly.

Bill Thorne:         They do go by quickly, but I mean, they're not easy years.

Zach Freeze:         They're not, they're not easy, but they're fun. They're exciting.

Bill Thorne:         Yeah, for sure.

Zach Freeze:         Absolutely. And, you know, my career started in environmental compliance actually. So I started off a little bit more on the technical side of understanding regulations and laws that apply to our products and how we could improve our products, on the shelf packaging formulations, and took a couple of other roles in the company sourcing and have been on the sustainability team for about nine years. And currently my role is really focused on leading the sustainability strategy for Walmart and areas like climate circularity packaging. And so it's a really exciting time. And, our focus is, as you know, very much how do we lead the industry? How do we lead as a company and bring others along? And so I think the goal here for our team is to really integrate sustainability and the strategy of every area of the company. And, our team is really on the forefront.

Bill Thorne:         I don't know that there's ever enough that you can do. I mean, but at the same time, I think the approach is great. You're not trying to boil the ocean. You're just trying to handle it one thing at a time where you can make a difference where you can have an impact and how you can build on that success. And I think that's the way that, you know, you've got to handle it because there's so many issues out there that can be tackled. I remember when Walmart really started this effort back in the mid-2000s and they led, I mean, there were a lot of others that were talking about it. And then all of a sudden Walmart said, well, we're going to do something about it. And we'd like to bring you along on the ride. So Zach, you know, you think about sustainability, Walmart's role in sustainability, what they've done, the people they've brought along the precedents, they have set. And yet, you know, it continues to grow. So when did it begin and how has it evolved really over the years?

Zach Freeze:         Yeah, it was shortly before I started, our then CEO Lee Scott really set us on this path of sustainability. So that was 2005. And you know, you think about 2005, there weren't a lot of companies that had really set a goal on sustainability. It was a very new term. People had to understand what it means, the concept, but it didn't stop Lee from setting me. He's very ambitious goals of a hundred percent renewable energy, sell more sustainable products, create zero waste, but it energized the company in figuring out this is important. Obviously our CEO is committed to it, so we better figure this out quick. And so that really started our journey. I think it's a company and over the years we've evolved, we've grown our areas of commitment. We've gotten more specific, but it's really forced us to understand what this means to our business. And of course the role that Walmart can play in leading what we think is the, you know, the revolution to be a regenerative company.

Bill Thorne:         Yeah, it is interesting when you think back that it was just as recent as the mid-2000s. And I think it was really the big thing about Walmart really engaging in this was that it showed a commitment at the top and the top was talking to the top. So it wasn't from, you know, bubbling up from a manager to a senior director, to a vice. It was the CEO talking to other CEOs about how that can get done. And actually I that's one great way to get things moving in a way that you wouldn't normally be able to in a, you know, in a corporate bureaucracy. But you know, you think about Walmart and how vocal they've been about climate change and, and the focus on what Walmart and its suppliers can do and basically should be doing as it relates to sustainability and climate change. Uh, what, what do our listeners need to know about Walmart's climate change efforts?

Zach Freeze:         Sure. And that's one of the top priorities for sustainability at Walmart, and it's really imperative to our business growth strategy. You know, we are in proudly over 10,000 communities around the world. We have over 2 million associates and the, the changing climate is going to affect us all. And so as Walmart, we have a role to play. And I think when we first started down the path of renewable energy, we quickly understood the business value to, to doing this and hopefully building resilience and strengthening the, the way our business looks at how we can integrate sustainability into our priorities and, and how it matters to the customer and telling, telling a customer about it. And you know, where we're at today is we think a point of leadership, but there's a lot more to do. But for instance, in our own operations, we have a goal of getting to zero emissions by 2040.

Zach Freeze:         So that's our scope. One scope to everything that our company, our, our own assets, emit getting those to true zero. So that's things like trucking refrigeration, as well as the electricity we produce. So making sure we can transition everything to hundred percent renewable sources, but as a retailer, as you know, our influence is much broader than just our own footprint, our own facilities. And so we have a project called project gigaton. That's focused on engaging our supply chain up and down on reducing 1 billion metric, tons of greenhouse gas from the environment by 2030. And so it's a really big audacious goal, but it's really designed to get all of our suppliers, everybody that we do business with, and even our customers involved in doing everything they can to reduce emissions, setting similar goals to Walmart and working in areas like energy packaging, waste reduction, transportation in, in hopes that we can do everything we can to energize the sector, empower everyone to get on board with us and set civil commitments.

Bill Thorne:         You know, you've, you've mentioned the consumer. It is so incredibly important because there, I think the consumer is more aware now than ever before. And it's been growing over the years about, the importance of sustainability, of being environmentally friendly of finding ways to basically ensure that what we're doing, isn't going to have a lasting impact on the environment, but instead is helping to heal the environment. And so that transparency I think is really important and it leads to, you know, brand loyalty as well. And it brings people to Walmart and to these other brands that are involved in this effort, because people wanna work for companies that have this as a priority, as a mission, as a vision, are setting goals that are realistic in getting the job done. If you look at the programs that you all have engaged in, what do you think, what has been easier than anticipated? What's proven to be the most challenging?

Zach Freeze:         Yeah. And it's, you know, it's very much a journey. And I think that's, you know, from where we started in 2005, and even what I've seen since joining the team, not a lot's in the easy bucket, you know, there's a lot of it that is challenging. But you know, things like waste reduction. This was one of the first areas that Walmart was able to move and we quickly identified, Hey, we're, we're paying to throw things away. We could actually create a revenue stream if we recycle them, what's the value there? How do we improve the process? How do we bring the store associates along to educate them on why we do this and why it's important, how it can impact their bottom line. So I think anything that you can directly tie to improvements in the bottom line, probably going to be much more successful.

Zach Freeze:        I think where we're at today is we've figured out a lot of the easy things and we're at the more difficult things. And so, you know, getting from where we are today, let's say at 82% of our waste has been, diverted from landfill huge progress, but we still got ways to go. We still have to be able to work on addressing that last part of the puzzle and figuring that out is tough. And so really figuring out what we can do to continue to help our customers recycle, remove additional materials from our own processes. And I think the same goes for energy, you know, things like energy, what can we do to become more energy efficient in the way we utilize energy with our equipment, our lighting. And I think trying to figure that out in a way that we think builds trust with the customer.

Zach Freeze:         And like, as you said, Bill, I think that's, that's, what's really important is we see this work telling the story about it is very important to the customer. They care, they do, they care about this and, and the associates do too. Yeah. So, you know, as, as we're, as we're working on this, we're getting more and more interest. And this is, I feel like what is really making it, our work a little easier is that the associate base really cares about they wanna work for a company that has this purpose that has, it's really involved in making a difference. And, and I feel like that's gonna continue to appeal to the future workforce.

Bill Thorne:         You know, one of the things I, I remember when y'all started this back at the beginning, one of the things that, the company did was they went out to the associates, the store associates and said, come up with some ideas on how we can, you know, help, save energy, and really help to reduce costs and, create some good for the environment. So it is involving everybody in the process and it's big things and small things, but it's getting everybody kind of educated and engaged in the effort. That's, if you're going to really have an impact and make a difference, you know, you work with a lot of different retailers. What advice do you give to those who are, you know, engaged in the effort or starting to engage in the effort have, you know, you have really kind of achieved one aspect and are looking for how they can make a difference in another aspect, but, you know, they're, they're kind of newer to the climate and broader sustainability issues where Walmart's been for quite some time. Now, what advice do you give to them?

Zach Freeze:       Yeah, I think one of the first things is, you know, get started, try to figure this out. And, and I think sometimes we, we don't, we can't relate to the problems. We can't relate to the issues. We don't understand them and that may, prohibit us from moving forward. But I think getting started is imperative for all of us. And, and that, that could be, you know, the way we started, which was trying to work with some external partners, some NGOs and set a big goal for us to start chasing after that's really what started our own journey. But I feel like at the phase we're at now, people really wanna perfect everything. They want to know everything before any, any commitment is made or any progress is disclosed. And I would encourage just open transparency on what companies are trying to do and, and, and what maybe we're not able to do yet.

Zach Freeze:         And where, where we're, we're having barriers and where we're seeing challenges. I think, you know, understanding for retailers where your customer's gonna be in 10 years, right. In five years from now, because they care about this. And if you're not working on things like climate today, you're gonna be behind in the future. And so you really have to work on understanding what it is that your impact, you know, if it's, if it's things like packaging, if it's things like, climate, if it's things like people in the supply chain or even the work that you can do in, in your own communities, you know, learn what matters to that broader stakeholder audience. Cause I will say we're getting interest from customers. We have a lot of interest from the investor.

Zach Freeze:         For sure. And so, investors are caring more and more about this and, and I think, you know, making sure and making that effort of this is what our plans are. This is what we aim to do and disclose in the future, that alone sends it a great signal. And of course you got to back that up with trying to really do the work, to understand how it relates to your business and how you can start to disclose and make progress.

Bill Thorne:         Yeah. You know, one of the things that people always were kind of suspected, you know, what Walmart was doing, why they were doing it when they were doing it, particularly at the beginning, there were a lot of people that were like, ah, this is just lip service. And, you know, we'll see it it'll work for a little while. It's more PR than it is a real commitment. Now Walmart was committed to your point. Leaf Scott was very committed to making sure that this worked across the enterprise. But I, you know, I think that the, what people have to understand is for businesses to engage in this, it has to make business sense. And I think that when you boil it down and one of the reasons so many others have gotten involved is it makes business sense. Again, it drives loyalty, it helps recruitment.

Bill Thorne:         It helps to ensure that you are putting your money or it's going to have the greatest impact, not only for the bottom line, but for the people that you serve and for the, you know, global environment. So it, it, it's really kind of exciting when you think about the fact that it does make business sense. And so why wouldn't you do it so exactly as you look at it right now, what, you know, it's, it's great to be in sustainability. What is the most exciting thing for you about working in retail sustainability right now today?

Zach Freeze:         Yeah. And, and I, I just want to key off one thing that you said that I think is really important, which is the shared value mindset, which means we have to make sure these initiatives are good for society and good for business. And they, you know, this is not something off to the side or, you know, maybe referred to as traditional CSR, right. That, oh, that'd be nice if we did that, but it's really not that important, you know, gone to those days. And now it's is something that we see as a key part of our strategy. And I think that's, that's the role of sustainability leaders like myself, is I've got to, you know, we're most retailers probably have a very small team dedicated sustainability. We've got to integrate it into the strategy of every other business unit. Yeah. And that's how we're gonna be able to move forward.

Zach Freeze:         And I think what's most exciting bill is it is involved in every area of the business, right? So we get an opportunity to help shape and, and be at the table with the supply chain and transportation strategy. We've got a commitment to get to zero emission vehicles. We've launched some really exciting last mile delivery utilizing EV technology even autonomously. Right. So that being a part of that is just so exciting and invigorating and at the same time it's okay, well, how do we, how do we source more sustainable beef for our shelf? Or how do we take packaging out of entirely a product category. And reduce the amount of Virgin plastic that we're using. And so I think the variety of issues makes it really exciting and interesting. And I think, you know, retail is, as you know, it's a very exciting and fast paced industry, but when you put this layer of a very interesting topic that people care about, and there's a lot we can do to make a difference, it just, it just makes for, I feel like a really important and incredible role and, and the time is now, right.

Zach Freeze:         Cause we know these issues aren't going away and there's something we're gonna have to really address. And, and Walmart, like many other retailers are in a great, you know, in the driver's seat to be able to make

Bill Thorne:         A difference, you know, and, and it too, I think that Walmart is in the driver's seat because not only is it, do they have a domestic footprint, but they've got a global footprint. I mean, what they're doing has impacts, across the world, particularly when you think about the supplier community and you think about areas where we do business, specifically, you know, you're going to have, an impact that many others couldn't have, you're bringing them along, but teaching them along the way. And I think that's really important. And speaking of teaching, you know, we have a lot of students that listen to Retail Gets Real. So if, if, if you met somebody that was a college student, they said, Zach, I, I really love sustainability. I love the issue. I want to be engaged in that. What do I do? How do I, where do I focus my studies? Where do I focus? You know, my next couple of years, as I get ready to graduate, what would you tell them?

Zach Freeze:         Yeah, I think this is such an emerging field and we're seeing it grow. And I, I love that we're getting much more interest every year. We have interns that join Walmart and the amount of interns that are, you know, raise their hand and say, I want to be exposed to what sustainability's doing. Tell me how you're making your sustainability, your, your strategy, a more sustainable. And so to see that interest, that's just the tip of the iceberg, right? It really what the future customer base is gonna care about. But I think as you're starting your career anywhere, and, one of the best pieces of advice that I got was, you know, I, I wanted to jump in into any role and make a difference, but I first really went with the mindset of, I've got to show that I'm the one that's coming up with this idea.

Zach Freeze:         This is my idea. And I want everyone to know that this is what, and, and I think one of my most helpful pieces of advice that was given to me was really around, you know, don't covet your ideas, give away everything you can, and, and more will come back to you. You start to really grow that kind of idea ecosystem by helping shape and influence what others think, because you're sharing your, you know, it may not be perfect, but you're sharing what you think you're bringing others along. And sure it may not be attributable to you, but you are making a difference. And people will notice that people will notice that as you start to influence and share and be open, it really boosts that col that collaborative atmosphere. And I feel like the way that our company works, the way most companies are working. Now, you have to depend on collaboration. You can't do it in a silo. You can't do it in just one team. And so, Bill, I think it's just really being open and sharing and being, you know, somewhat vulnerable, but really just trying to help accelerate the overall direction of the company and by just not being selfish with, with your own ideas. Yeah.

Bill Thorne:         And, and I think that that's probably a big part of the success that Walmart has had in leading. This is that the retailers really work hard to beat the other guy, but in the area of sustainability, I believe that that competitiveness kind of goes to the side where they work together, they collaborate and they think, and they share, and they look for best practices. They implement them, they refine them, they share those refinements in order to really make a difference, as an industry, not just necessarily as a brand. So to your point, that's excellent advice, for anybody and particularly in this space you have a good idea, share it and continue to build on that and bring others with you. And I'm, I'm telling you can really make a difference and it's not that hard.

Zach Freeze:         Yep absolutely. And then one good example, that the climate work that NRF just recently rolled out that is a, you know, a collection of everything that retail is doing on climate, in an effort to help those that may not have been exposed to some of these ideas and projects. And so retailers like Walmart contributed to that to try to help bring others along. Because like you said, there's really no, I mean there is still some competition. I will say that, but, we were first of course we know, we know things like climate, like that's not something Walmart consultant alone. Yeah. That's not something that any retailer can do on, on its own. And so we really need everyone on board.

Bill Thorne:         Absolutely. Zach Freeze, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a great conversation and I've enjoyed it immensely. Thanks again.

Zach Freeze:         My pleasure, Bill.

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