Farm to Fork Sustainability Ends at Checkout

There's a study circulating at the U.S. Federal Reserve that suggests 80% of the products sold at Walmart stores end up in a landfill within 60 days.

That's an eye-popping figure, to be sure, and it seems too incredible to be true. After all, a little more than half the cash register rings at the Bentonville behemoth's U.S. stores are for food & beverage products. Sure, the box and bag that come with 12 ounces of puffed wheat weigh almost as much as the cereal, but could the product itself really be that big of a throwaway?

Well, food waste really is a big issue in the land of milk and honey, with estimates running as high as 50%. The most frequently cited figure is 40%. Some of the losses occur at the farm level, and certainly there is waste during production and (especially) in storage. But in-plant losses most likely are trending down, a consequence of processors' focus on improving OEE and launching lean manufacturing and six sigma initiatives to reduce "muda," aka waste.

The majority of food waste occurs after shoppers leave a store, however; no less an authority than the USDA estimates 25% of the food purchased at retail ends up in the trash. The agency will update that figure this year, and the expectation is that the new figure will be even higher.

Whatever the current rate of food waste turns out to be, it's mathematically impossible for four-fifths of the combined food and nonfood products sold by Walmart to be landfilled, unless shoppers drop their grocery bags in the trash and go hungry. However, the study raises tough questions about the quality of the electronics, "durable" goods and other items flying off Walmart's shelves. A former Federal Reserve official suggests the quality of the nonfood items passing over the retailer's scanners is suspect, in part because Walmart's core demographic is households with less than $30,000 in income. Those shoppers have neither the means or the inclination to buy top-quality merchandise.

In any case, buyer beware: if you're offered the extended warranty plan for the nonfood gizmo you're buying at Walmart, think twice before saying no.