(UPDATED COVERAGE, July 17) Wal-Mart’s plans to develop a worldwide sustainable product index might add cost and work to growers, shippers and suppliers of fresh produce, at least in the short term.


But it’s money that needs to be spent and work that needs to be done, at least according to one supplier of the retail giant.


“I think it does put pressure (on the produce industry), but it’s a good pressure,” said Ryan VanGroningen, sales manager for VanGroningen and Sons Inc., Manteca, Calif. “Everybody needs to be working in this direction, including in produce. It’s just going to take time in getting to the point they’re talking about.”


Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced its plans July 16 during a meeting with 1,500 of its suppliers, associates and sustainability leaders at its home office in Bentonville, Ark., according to a release from the company. The index aims to establish a single source for sustainability information on all Wal-Mart products and those of other retailers.


What might sting in the short term could turn into a long-term benefit, said one produce consultant.


“I don’t think anyone will be terribly inconvenienced, but everyone is going to have to change,” said Bill Bishop, chairman of Willard Bishop LLC, Barrington, Ill. “Ultimately, there’s going to be a much greater connection between the grower and consumer. I think, eventually, every producer that gets on this bandwagon is going to be thankful.”Wal-Mart already has been working with the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which seeks to create metrics on sustainability practices and products. The group is made up of members throughout the produce supply chain and, in addition to working with Wal-Mart, has Costco as a retail partner and Sysco Corp.  among major distributors.


“Wal-Mart has expressed an interest in an industry-agreed-upon set of metrics for measuring sustainability performance in the fresh produce industry,” said Barbara Meister, spokeswoman for SureHarvest, a third-party auditor and sustainability consultant based in Sacramento, Calif. “We’re hopeful that Wal-Mart will use these metrics.”


Meister said the produce industry was hopeful it soon would have one common set of rules and regulations to follow.


“Like with food safety … they said, ‘Let’s not go down that path again, let’s make one set of metrics,’” Meister said. “(The big retailers and distributors) are all agreeing to this measure. They might have different scales … but we’re all going to use the same yardstick.”


What this means to produce suppliers of the retail giant might be too early to tell, VanGroningen said.


“We really haven’t had too much contact with Wal-Mart to know what they’re going to be asking,” VanGroningen said. “We’ve been trying to do a lot more in terms of recycling packaging materials.”


The company plans to introduce the index in three stages. The first involves sending more than 100,000 of its suppliers around the world a 15-question survey asking about the suppliers’ energy and climate practices, material efficiency, sourcing of natural resources and ensuring responsibility and proper ethics with people and community. U.S. suppliers must complete and return the survey by Oct. 1 with timelines for suppliers outside the country to be determined.


Step two involves the creation of a consortium of universities that will collaborate with suppliers, retailers, government and nongovernment organizations to develop a global database of information on the lifecycle of products. According to the release, Wal-Mart has provided initial funding for the consortium.


“It is not our goal to create or own this index,” Wal-Mart president and chief executive officer Mike Duke said in the release. “We want to spur the development of a common database that will allow the consortium to collect and analyze the knowledge of the global supply chain.”


The third step is to develop a tool whereby consumers can obtain and translate the information in the database about sustainability of products. Creating a set of standards for nearly every consumer product certainly is a big undertaking. It prompted one professor at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas to call the move “audacious, even by Wal-Mart’s standards,” in an article July 16 in The New York Times. “I think it’s going to be a lot of work for a lot of people,” professor Jon Johnson told the Times. “But obviously we’re optimistic about the prospects.” One Wal-Mart produce supplier, who requested anonymity,  said it probably would be necessary to narrow the definition of sustainability to create such an index.