Wal-Mart to buy food from local farms globally
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Wal-Mart announced aggressive goals Thursday for improving the way food is grown and transported across the globe, bringing the weight of the world's largest grocer to an industry that environmentalists say is riddled with inefficiency and waste.
The retail behemoth, which operates in 10 countries, said it plans to triple the amount of food it sells from small and medium-size farms in emerging markets, such as India and Brazil, to $1 billion within five years.
In the United States, Wal-Mart vowed to double the sales of locally sourced produce to 9 percent of purchases. And it will begin holding farms accountable for the amount of water, energy, fertilizer and pesticides used to grow food.
"Our size and scale have been big tools for change," Wal-Mart Chief Executive Mike Duke said in a meeting with employees at the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. "There is an opportunity to lead in this area of sustainable agriculture."
The company embarked on a mission five years ago to transform its business -- often criticized for its singular focus on low prices, despite collateral environmental damage -- into an eco-friendly enterprise and to reshape its image. It aimed to use only renewable energy, eliminate waste and sell more sustainable products and to work with some of the same environmental advocacy groups that once criticized the company.
Since then, Wal-Mart has introduced hybrid 18-wheelers that use less fuel and smaller laundry detergent bottles to reduce packaging. It set new environmental standards for its suppliers in China, where regulations are notoriously lax. Last week, it launched a program to recycle the company's used plastic bottles into dog beds sold at its stores.
But Thursday's announcement was the most comprehensive and far-reaching initiative since the original goals were laid out. Wal-Mart began working on the project a year ago with advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund.
"This is where Wal-Mart's scale enables them to do what other retailers aren't large enough to do," said Michelle Harvey, who helps manage the defense fund's work with Wal-Mart.
The retailer said it plans to boost sales of local produce -- food grown in the same state that it is sold -- by working with large farms to expand their operations closer to Wal-Mart supply centers, and by buying more from small and female-owned farms near its stores. It also promised to buy harvests from farmers who grow certain crops in strategic locations, such as tomatoes, blueberries and broccoli along the Interstate 95 corridor. The program aims to reduce the distance that food must travel, lowering energy use and costs.
Internationally, Wal-Mart wants to boost production and improve practices at small and medium-size farms. The retailer said it plans to train 1 million workers in sustainable-farming practices. The program is expected to raise their income by 10 percent to 15 percent, Wal-Mart said.
First Published October 15, 2010 12:00 am