On a recent GreenBiz webinar, Jeff Rice, director of sustainability at Walmart, gave a compelling presentation of is company’s approach to sustainability. This slide caught my eye. It illustrates what Walmart calls its “productivity loop”:
Walmart has been a real sustainability leader in recent years and deserves lots of credit for it. But to my mind, this picture has nothing to do with its sustainability leadership nor, for that matter with sustainability. Indeed, to me it depicts an inherently unsustainable dynamic: prices the spiral endlessly downward while sales continue to rise. I am pretty sure there is a lower limit on prices, and an upper limit on sales for that matter.
Contrast Walmart’s “loop” with this depiction of the “Circular Economy,”, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:
This is a vision of a truly sustainable system.
Now, the comparison isn’t exactly fair, because Walmart is an enterprise, and its “productivity loop” depicts its own operating model, while “The Circular Economy” depicted above is an entire economy. But it is worth thinking about what the future of sustainability demands of a retailer like Walmart, after it has wrung environmental and economic inefficiencies from its own operations and from its suppliers. How will it need to adapt its model to fit with and support a sustainable economic ecosystem?