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Three CEOs in One Room: Walmart, Coca-Cola, Unilever

Some of the biggest CEOs in Canada come together for the Walmart Green Student Challenge. I took this rare opportunity to ask them: Where is sustainability going for Canadian industries? Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Unilever already share best practices for their common goals in sustainability. Now they want to see more suppliers come on board.

The all-star judge panel for Walmart Green Student Challenge includes CEOs from Walmart Canada, Coca-Cola Canada, Unilever Canada, Maple Leaf Foods, and The David Suzuki Foundation. They come together at the Toronto Stock Exchange to hear five finalist teams of students present their next big green ideas. Prizes totalling $100,000 were awarded, including the first prize that went to Arthur Yip, Jake Yeung, and Alan Thai from University of Waterloo for their “integrated energy hub” idea. The large scale concept is projected to bring benefits of $1.35 million per year over 20 years.

Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Unilever have numerous suppliers in product manufacturing, packaging, transportations, logistics, energy, waste management, and other areas. In the nearer time frame, what do the retail and consumer products giants like to see from their suppliers? What can suppliers do to deepen their relationships with them?

Walmart has three goals on sustainability and they would like help from their suppliers to achieve these goals. The goals are bold: (1) achieve 100 percent renewable energy use, (2) get down to zero waste, and (3) sell products that are sustainable both to people and to the environments.

As covered in Walmart Sustainability Report — Canadian Operation Details, a range of internal initiatives have been taking place in energy efficiency, waste reduction, and packaging reduction. Shelley Broader, President and CEO of Walmart Canada, said to me, “If you ask something of your suppliers, you need to start with asking it of your own company.”

But to hit those targets, internal effort alone is not enough. Walmart also need help from their suppliers. These include suppliers for products, logistics, transportation, and packaging. Walmart is actively sharing their sustainability best practices with their suppliers through their industry-leading ShareGreen initiative. And they would like to see their suppliers set similar goals and share their experiences back. One of their major suppliers, Coca-Cola, has been doing just that.

“If you look at the key areas that Coca-Cola is after such as water usage, packaging, and energy, we all need to work together to achieve our goals. None of us can solve these issues on our own,” said John Guarino, President of Coca-Cola Canada. “An element of our approach is transparency. Share what our goals are and what the best practices are and not try to hold them to ourselves.” (See them in action in Coca-Cola: A Case Study in Sustainability.)

Broader echoed the same approach. “If Walmart has something that is working economically and is good for the environment, we want to show them to Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Loblaw. It’s good for all of us to be better citizens. What I am looking for from Coke is different from what I ask from Unilever. Our suppliers also have their own aggressive goals on sustainability that we are responsible for helping them to achieve.”

In other words, the retailer and manufacturers are knowledge-sharing partners on the journey of sustainability. And they would like to invite other suppliers to come on board.

Further up the supply chain is also involved. Unilever, itself a major supplier to Walmart, also collaborates with its own suppliers in order to reduce their environmental footprint and save costs. As an example, farmers are encouraged to switch from sprinklers to drip irrigation to dramatically reduce water usage, according to John LeBoutillier, president of Unilever Canada. Being a good community citizen is important to Unilever. They like seeing smaller family-owned farms prosper by working with Unilever. (See Unilever’s Triple Win Sustainability Strategy.)

At the other end of the product lifecycle is consumer usage. Unilever is mindful that the bulk of their products’ footprint comes from usage by consumers. How are consumers using their shampoos and conditioners? How long are their showers? How much water is being used to prepare their packaged foods? At what temperature does the water need to be to prepare those foods? These are concerns Unilever have as they drive their consumers towards a more sustainable lifestyle through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

In the end we are all on the same planet. The three large multinational corporations are inviting suppliers, independent farmers, individual consumers, and others to join them on the journey of sustainability. Have you RSVP yet?

Derek Wong is a Toronto based sustainability consultant. See contact info and more posts like this at Carbon49.com.

Derek Wong
Derek Wong is a Toronto based climate change and sustainability consultant. Contact him through his blog Carbon49.com.
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