Today it becomes official.  Sustainability is in.  Wal-Mart says so.

The marketing giant is expected to release details Thursday of a new initiative which it claims will help its buyers, customers, and other retailers determine the social and environmental impact of every product on Wal-Mart's shelves.

According to Stephanie Rosenbloom writing in The New York Times, the company will announce the implementation of an electronic system, a sustainability index, that would give stakeholders a way to determine which products to put on their shelves or in their carts.  As Rosenbloom puts it, determining which products are "greener" will no longer be just the consumer's job.

The program is expected to take five years to reach full implementation.  In the first phase Wal-Mart will gather information from its 100,000 plus suppliers about the sustainable practices of their companies. 

Next, with the help of the Universities of Arkansas and Arizona State, the company will build a database and a system to measure the impact of the product across its life cycle and then finally the information will be used to create a tool for consumers to use in evaluating product sustainability.

This approach will enable consumers to move beyond looking at the impact of products on narrow single issues such as waste reduction or energy efficient production in order to look at what Rosenbloom calls "all environmental and social implications of (all) products."

The program could have enormous implications world-wide.  Wal-Mart is the 500-lb gorilla and its policies, for better or worse, impact global manufacturing, resource choices, and consumption.  The Times article quotes Arizona State University Professor Jay S. Golden: "(W)e are thrilled that Wal-Mart is taking a leadership role because they can move more companies toward this than any government can do."

Golden cites as example of the consumer choice issues an index could highlight a hypothetical laundry detergent engineered to allow virtually all water to be extracted from clothing during the wash cycle, saving both water and time in the dryer.  However, the detergent carries some risk of skin reactions.  Information on these types of pros and cons would allow consumers to pick the tradeoffs they are willing to make.

The article acknowledges that, while suppliers may have concerns about proprietary information and the financial outlays they might be forced to make to adapt products, the sheer size of the Wal-Mart economic footprint could make those concerns irrelevant for those wanting a spot on the store's shelves.