I’m pretty sure Santa shopped at Walmart when I was a kid. It was also one of the few places accessible for clothes shopping when I was growing up. For many in rural America, the Super stores have long offered the largest selection of groceries, including somewhat fresh produce. And the friendly greeters, you have to admit, are super sweet even while keeping an eye out for shoplifters.
Yet becoming the world’s largest retailer, obviously doing a lot of things right by corporate America’s standards, has made Walmart an easy target for detractors. Do the Megastores displace small businesses, does the company pay its workers enough, what about gigantic carbon footprints? Does Walmart represent anything more than the neverending quest for “low prices,” which can mean big volume for business and low quality for consumers? What does Walmart mean by “live better?”
Walmart is one of those iconic stores where people shop, even if they don’t consider themselves a Walmart shopper. For instance, if you’re traveling and realize you forgot your toothbrush or exercise clothes or sunscreen — that’s where you buy it, isn’t it? Even if you’re super-careful about what you feed your kids and would rather shop at the farmer’s market — you can find reasonably priced USDA Organic eggs, dairy and produce at Walmart now. The place that inspires an entire meme about distastefully dressed shoppers arguably is led by the best groomed team of executives in the world.
America’s love-hate relationship with Walmart just got a lot more interesting because the leading retailer is taking an unprecedented step toward ensuring products on its shelves are safe for its customers. We’re not just talking let’s-make-sure-it-doesn’t-poke-an-eye-out safe, we mean let’s-examine-the-science-about-what-might-cause-cancer safe. Walmart is referencing various government and agency lists on suspected carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances. Whew! That’s a Big Deal!
Listen to this statement in Walmart’s newly public Implementation Guide for Policy on Sustainable Chemistry in Consumables:
“As part of its corporate mission to help people Save Money and Live Better, Walmart and Sam’s Club believe that customers/members should not have to choose between products that they can afford and products that are better for them and the environment.”
Walmart has announced that within a year, it expects suppliers to fully disclose ingredients online (not necessarily on packaging, still not convenient at the point of sale), including ingredients in fragrance (many with suspected health impacts) and so-called residuals that can be created during the manufacture of a product (think 1,4 dioxane created while making detergents). The company has also created its own list of Walmart Priority Chemicals, with input from a lot of smart scientists, referencing Sustainable Chemistry as important. In a process designed to protect trade secrets and business interests, Walmart is giving suppliers the chance to clean up their act, make sure they don’t use the worst toxic chemicals of concern and requiring them to disclose if they do.
Will Walmart’s bold new product ingredient policy be any more than greenwashing? Only time will tell; and for now, you’re still really on your own to determine whether a product is safe for your family. For now, I’ll continue to buy vinegar and baking soda at Walmart and answer the clerks’ questions at checkout when they ask why I buy so much of those two items. I explain that it helps my family avoid suspected toxic chemicals in many typical cleaning products if I clean instead with vinegar and baking soda, and it costs a lot less, too.
Walmart is helping to shift the marketplace away from the norm of profitability being at odds with product integrity. Wouldn’t it be curious if a few years from now, Walmart were famous for being the largest truly green retailer on earth? Since consumers like you and leading retailers like Walmart want more emphasis on health and safety in consumer products, perhaps there’s even hope for real USA policy reform.