Elizabeth Sturcken firmly believes in the power of big companies to make small, meaningful changes that lead to global environmental progress. You’d have to, in order to do what she does, which is work alongside powerhouses like McDonald’s and United Airlines to push them towards setting and meeting climate goals.
Sturcken directs climate impact inside the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) division devoted to corporate partnerships. And her biggest partnership so far is with Walmart. Sturcken has been working with Walmart since 2006, and her team continues to work with the company on its Project Gigaton initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chains.
The work—and especially the Walmart partnership—has earned EDF both praise and criticism over the years. Some say EDF’s environmental approach is practical and designed for maximum impact, given the power of corporations to effect change at scale; others see only enabling greenwashing in the organization’s willingness to work with companies that often take maximum credit for minimal improvements.
Critics also say that pointing to Walmart’s progress is very much in the interest of EDF: Over the past 20 years, EDF has received more than $100 million from the Walton Family Foundation. In 2021 alone, the Foundation provided EDF with nearly $10.5 million in funding. Lukas Walton’s Builders’ Initiative, meanwhile, gave EDF $530,000, and Ben Walton’s Zoma Foundation gave $140,000. EDF characterizes the relationships as completely separate and says it does not take funding from corporations it works with, including Walmart.
In this interview, Sturcken spoke to Civil Eats about EDF’s work with Walmart, its impacts, and admitted limitations.
Walmart’s goal to become a regenerative company “is a huge, ambitious aspiration. It is where they need to head, and it’s where we need to head as a planet,” she said. “And yet, of course, they’re far from even being a sustainable company despite their leadership over . . . 20 years.”
Walmart’s sustainability work started around 2005, and it seems like EDF started working with the company pretty soon after that. Is that right?
It started with these conversations that were held in the basement of a hotel in Fayetteville, [Arkansas] with a bunch of environmental groups and other civil society advocates. And no one wanted to admit that they had those meetings at that time because Walmart was really under attack from all angles.
I think that EDF saw an opportunity in that Walmart was the most powerful company in the United States—arguably in the world—to try to drive ambitious environmental outcomes. So, we decided to jump in and try to work with them. We invested in being the first and only NGO to set up an office in Bentonville, Arkansas.
I was just coming back from maternity leave in 2005 . . . and when I heard about the initial conversations with Walmart, I’m like, “That’s gonna be big. I want to do that.” So, I jumped in to lead this work, and I have led it for all of these years.
In a 2009 video of you speaking to Walmart leadership, you said two interesting things. First, you said, “I’ve never seen a company embrace sustainability as fully as Walmart.” But then later, you said, “The world will celebrate with you when you show measurable progress towards these goals.” It sounded like you were trying to applaud but also challenge them. Can you say more?
For over 25 years, I’ve been at EDF working with companies, and when we started out, it was an open question whether there was a win-win, like a business win along with an environmental win. And now, there’s no question that that is the case. Not that being a sustainable company doesn’t cost money, it does. But just that the business benefits are tangible, real, and they cover all sorts of different things. There can be cost savings. There are PR benefits. There is employee engagement and customer engagement. And this is key for the food and ag space: there’s supply chain risk reduction.
What we have seen over the years is if a company embraces sustainability and incorporates it deep in the business, there is this positive feedback loop. They continue to do more and step up and lead even further. So, the ripple effect with Walmart goes back to those early days where they communicated to their suppliers that, “We want you to lead.”
We got Walmart to set the first supply chain carbon reduction goal of any retailer. I believe it called for a reduction or avoidance of 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses. We jumped in and . . . ultimately figured out where the big buckets of carbon were and where the big opportunities in different product categories and different parts of the value chain were. The answer was to dive in where there was a lot of opportunity both for carbon reduction and for business engagement.
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Author: Lisa Held