Wal-Mart is taking preliminary steps towards measuring the sustainability of its produce suppliers, according to The Packer, a publication covering the produce industry.
Executives from the world's biggest retailer spoke at the 2011 Sustainable Food Lab Leadership Summit in Oregon in June, explaining that the company is currently determining what on-farm data to collect in an expanded pilot program.
Wal-Mart intends to use some of the metrics developed by the California-based Stewardship Index for specialty crops, and reportedly will ask top producers in its global supply chain to complete a Sustainable Produce Assessment this year.
The info collected is likely to include water, energy and fertilizer consumption, as well as waste production, pesticide use, yields and the use of refrigerants.
Wal-Mart is working with the Sustainability Consortium to develop an overall sustainability index for fresh food produce. The Consortium, which is jointly administered by the University of Arkansas and the University of Arizona is helping develop produce category assessments for the index.
Other industry representatives working with the Consortium include McDonalds, Tyson, Unilever, and Proctor and Gamble.
"The idea is that the Sustainability Consortium is a bigger look at a number of sectors in addition to fresh food and the plan is that the Stewardship Index would be able to feed directly into the food and beverage component of what the Sustainability Consortium is working towards," Jessica Siegal, program director for the Stewardship Index, told The Packer.
Siegal goes on to explain that the overall industry will be better off if suppliers and retailers collaborate around a single set of sustainability metrics for produce.
"The bottom line is that the Stewardship Index metrics are going to be available for use by any of the stakeholders throughout the fruit and vegetable supply chain," Siegal says. "Wal-Mart has been involved on the coordinating council for the Stewardship Index since the very early days of the program and they are looking at how to figure out how to incorporate the metrics into their sustainable produce assessment."
Eventually, Wal-Mart says it plans to expand its analysis beyond the farm to include reports from merchants and packagers. This will be a crucial piece in understanding the sustainability of the overall fresh produce system, as a great amount of food is thrown away as waste - or "shrink" in industry terms - without ever reaching the dinner table.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report in June stating that roughly one-third of the food produced worldwide for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to some 1.3 billion tons per year.