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Something > Nothing: The Importance of a Circular Feedback Loop

Image credit: Flickr/Werner Kappler

“All I really need is the word to be brought up.”

“If they aren’t talking about it, then it can’t be important to them.”

At WAP Sustainability, we work with manufacturers and brands to help them meet customers’ expectations on sustainability, many of which receive requests through The Sustainability Consortium (TSC). 

In the course of our work and discussions with suppliers of Walmart, we have recently been reminded that sustainability is still a small part of the total equation of doing business with the retail giant; and we noticed it becoming less and less of a factor as of late.

One of the world's iconic manufacturers of children's products told me that the reason they were not fulfilling Walmart's request for sustainability information through TSC is that they had just returned from Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters — and once again, the “S-word” never came up.

"No posters on the wall; not even the S-word on a piece of damn paper."

Even colleagues at TSC report challenges with getting Walmart to make the topic visible: "I had a prospective member who was interested in joining our organization and they felt the company could be doing more and wanted to be more engaged in the sustainability community. One trip to Bentonville made them realize this was no longer a priority and they didn’t become a member."

Even companies with Board Members on The Sustainability Consortium are questioning the lack of a nudge.

“It has to be about creating value and there isn’t any. No favorable purchasing terms, additional shelf space, end caps, promotions … If we miss a shipment or have a supply chain hiccup, none of this matters; none of this helps us in those situations."

Reflecting on a recent sustainability conference, I was reminded once again of the buzzwords, promises, stated goals, commitments, claims and so forth around the topics of sustainable purchasing and responsible sourcing; half of the exhibitors and sessions seemed to have something to do with one of these topics.

Yet one of the companies responsible for driving sustainability into organizations as a top 10 strategic priority back in 2008 has seemed to take a step back. Maybe it is the new leadership at Walmart; maybe it is the sustainability personnel at Walmart; maybe our clients are right and they aren't that serious, after all.

In 10+ years of discussing sustainable purchasing or responsible sourcing (whatever term you subscribe to), the single biggest opportunity — and the single biggest failure — is a lack of a feedback loop. The buyer-seller nexus cannot be influenced if we do not use our words.

We talked with Walmart’s Senior Director of Sustainability, Fred Bedore, about the feedback loop from Walmart to suppliers on their sustainability performance. He highlighted that Walmart engages with suppliers in multiple ways, including Joint Sustainability Meetings with the top 25-30 suppliers and through their Global Responsibility Report; overall about 1,800 suppliers representing 70 percent of Walmart’s sales respond to TSC’s KPIs.

However, the opportunity to make sustainability more visible in buyer meetings with merchants was confirmed as an opportunity for the retailer. Bedore recommended that suppliers bring up sustainability (the Index, packaging, efficiency or another sub-topic) with the buyer to help spur the conversation, highlighting that a reverse feedback loop with the buyer is an interesting approach that sometimes creates really good engagement and results.

As sustainability professionals and as a broader sustainability community, what is most concerning to me is that sustainability practitioners at manufacturers and brands spend significant internal capital to "get sustainability done.” Our colleagues cross internal and external lines, push the organization, manage data, respond to surveys and make the case for sustainability, and for what? 

"The word doesn't even come up when my biggest customer meets with me." 

And picking only on Walmart and TSC would be unfair.

The demand for a feedback loop expands beyond just Walmart. Just last month, 50 major building product manufacturers including Herman Miller, Milliken, Kohler and Allegion sent a joint letter authored by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) to architects and design professionals demanding a feedback loop on the sustainability performance of their companies and products.

In contrast, there are positive examples of good feedback loops. I want to compliment June Fisher from Kohl’s, who in my opinion had provided great feedback to Kohl’s suppliers: When responding to Kohl's Sustainability Survey, June would take the time to review the survey and schedule a call to review responses. She provided feedback and expressed interest in the responses our clients had worked so hard to generate. IKEA, too, does an exceptional job at providing feedback, digging deep into each data point, checking for errors or abnormalities.

For Walmart, feedback direct to 1,800 suppliers at 15 minutes each is a mere 450-hour task.

The moral of the story is, as sustainability practitioners, we have to activate the information we are collecting. We need not let our colleagues expel internal political capital trying to respond to our self-created surveys, only to set them up for failure by not having a feedback loop to show that anyone actually cares. I truly believe that “S-word” written in a room, on a Vendor Scorecard, or as a static topic on every buyer agenda is an easy first step to closing the feedback loop. We move forward by making sustainability visible.

As an action item, I'll even offer to create one of those motivational posters with the S-word on it, and maybe some pictures of solar panels, recycling bins, a Prius, or a windmill; Walmart, give me a call — I'll send you one for every buyer’s room.


William Paddock is the founder and managing director of WAP Sustainability Consulting, a leading provider of sustainability services that include carbon accounting, lifecycle assessments, certification support, product transparency programs, supply chain sustainability and managed sustainability services. Paddock has become… [Read more about William Paddock]


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