On Sunday morning at NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show, Zach Freeze, senior director, strategic initiatives-sustainability at Walmart, and Saskia van Gendt, head of sustainability at Rothy’s, discussed the current and future status of environmental sustainability in retail. NRF Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Scot Case moderated the conversation, which took place on the StarWind Stage.
Case began the session with a question: What is sustainability? The term is given hundreds of definitions; at NRF, it’s a set of activities and initiatives aimed at creating net positive environmental, social and community benefits.
Couldn't make the show? Take a look at our event recap to catch up on content from NRF 2022.
Among the major issues that emerge in a conversation of retail sustainability are three big ones: consumer care, transparency and externalizing. “Every retail transaction,” Case said, “fits in there somehow.”
With that as a lead-in, Case asked Freeze how Walmart, an acknowledged retail industry leader in sustainability, is progressing with its environmental ambitions. Walmart is committed to being a zero emissions company by 2040, Freeze said. Regarding the progress and degree of climate change, he said, “This is imperative.”
To help that commitment become a reality, Walmart brought in external partners including The Nature Conservancy to determine what retailers can do. An obvious place to start, Freeze noted, was with energy consumption, both because there’s a lot of it and because it served as a way to define the target.
Among those at the table for that discussion at Walmart are the transportation fleet, representatives of the various parts of the supply chain, and store operations managers. Communicating Walmart’s goals and progress to its supplier community is a major ongoing part of the program: About 5 percent of the company’s carbon footprint is due to Walmart operations themselves; the other 95 percent comes from its suppliers.
Rothy’s, on the other hand, as a vertically integrated operation, is its own supplier. When van Gendt took over her position, her primary concerns were to reduce Rothy’s carbon footprint and establish circularity: How do you design a product so it eliminates waste?
“We rely on every part of the company to eliminate carbon waste,” van Gendt said; both an internal team and an external sustainability committee participated in Rothy’s discussion of its sustainability effort. External advisors included NGOs and fashion and footwear experts.
Customers were involved as well; the company was surprised at the reaction of some to a recycling program for worn-out shoes. “We are not through with them,” they said. “They are not ready to be recycled.”
Toward the end of the session, the conversation turned to lessons the panelists have learned in their sustainability efforts. One of Rothy’s lessons, according to van Gendt, was a sense of its own role in the process. “If you own the supply chain, you can do things,” she said. “You can set up for on-demand manufacturing, so as not to leave waste. But when you do that, you own all the responsibility.”
Case asked the panelists how they might counsel someone who was about to step into their jobs. Noting her background in science — van Gendt began her career at the Environmental Protection Agency — she said, “I would start by understanding the status quo and its benefits. Then I would ask how I could apply my knowledge of sustainability.”
“There is a need for innovation,” Freeze said. “Ask yourself, ‘What can we do as a company?’ Remember, you can’t be timid. This is an urgent situation. How do we stand out?”