Walmart’s sheer size gives it an opportunity to address issues in the food system, although it won’t be easy, Jack Sinclair, EVP, grocery division, said at The New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference on Wednesday.
The Walmart executive spoke during a panel discussion called “Can Sustainable Scale — and How?” at the event in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.
Sinclair, who the moderator, author Michael Pollan, described as “the man who buys more groceries than anyone in the world,” said Walmart’s initial sustainability efforts — such as using energy more efficiently, reducing the distance trucks traveled and reducing packaging — were simple steps that helped the retailer’s bottom line.
However, increasing the sustainability of the food system has been a bit trickier.
While Walmart has succeeded in selling “tons more” organic products, Sinclair acknowledged there are still barriers to growing that part of the business.
For example, the retailer has approached vendors in Vermont about buying more organic milk to sell in its stores. However, milk is only one product produced by dairy farmers. Suppliers also need to consider byproducts like butter and yogurt for which there may not be a demand yet from retailers.
“If we’re going to grow more organic meat or more antibiotic-free meat or more organic dairy, it has to be done in a sustainable way. And I mean that by buying all elements of the animal or buying all elements of the product of the animal,” said Sinclair.
One area where Walmart thinks it can make a difference is reducing food waste. The retailer plans to build an apple processing plant in Washington to make use of the produce that stores don’t want and decrease reliance on apple juice from China.
“It’s crazy when you go into Washington state and you see apple orchards, the most fantastic apple orchards, and the apples that haven’t fitted — that don’t fit the specification are lying on the ground,” said Sinclair.
Walmart also plans to be less reliant on California produce to reduce energy costs and tap into the local food movement.
“Specifically at the moment we’re working the Carolinas, we’re working Michigan, we’re working in the Mississippi River Delta, taking products that were getting produced in California — not because there’s anything wrong with California. It just takes a long time to get lettuce from California to Maine,” said Sinclair.
Although Sinclair was hesitant to give any details, an announcement from Walmart about antibiotic use in livestock could be forthcoming.
“But as the customer increasingly demands this, we’re increasingly looking at what should our stance be in this space. And it’s probably something you’re going to see something from us in the future,” said Sinclair.
Ultimately, producing food sustainably is about maintaining a sustainable business, Sinclair said.
“And our challenge in selling food to so many people — 140 million Americans and over 200 million across the world — is how do we do it safely, how do we do it affordably, and how do we do it sustainably? We have to do it in such a way that we’ll be able to do it forever, and that continuous improvement that was talked about earlier is a really important part of the lens of sustainability.”
Last month, Walmart announced a food sustainability initiative focused on making food affordable, accessible, healthy and safe and transparent.
To hear Sinclair’s full remarks from the conference, watch the video replay of the panel below:
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