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Aruba, February 13, 2013 - As Walmart’s senior VP for sustainability, Andrea B. Thomas steers the giant retailer’s efforts to embed environmental sensitivity into every aspect of its operations. In a recent conversation with Sheila Bonini, a Senior Expert in McKinsey’s Sustainability and Resource Productivity Practice, Thomas spoke about the challenges of building a greener supply chain and explained why Walmart won’t be marketing sustainability to customers anytime soon.

BONINI: How do customer preferences influence Walmart’s approach to sustainability?

THOMAS: We’re looking to stock the products that customers want to buy. We serve a really broad audience: about 140 million customers come into our U.S. stores every week, and about 200 million globally. We actually cater to lower-income customers who are really busy, may have two jobs, and are struggling to make ends meet. Where sustainability fits into that picture is that customers shouldn’t have to pay a premium to have access to sustainable, healthy products.

BONINI: To what extent do you use marketing messages to steer customers toward more sustainable items?

THOMAS: Basically, we don’t. For example we stock a variety of laundry detergents including cold-water detergent, which consumes less energy than detergents that require hot water. We also sell a variety of garments that will get equally clean whether you wash them in hot or cold water. We changed the labels on those garments to say wash in cold water. But we don’t actively steer customers toward cold-water detergent. We’re not spending our marketing dollars telling them how to wash their clothes. Instead we tell them that we have everyday low prices on the items they want to buy in our stores.

BONINI: So most of your customers aren’t demanding sustainable products?

THOMAS: That’s right. And in fairness to them, the whole question of what makes a sustainable consumer product is fairly complicated. For example, you can argue that organic produce is more sustainable. It’s certainly true that organic farmers use less or no pesticides, which is positive. On the other hand, organic farming generally uses more water to produce smaller crop yields.  

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