Walmart is going green?

So Walmart has launched a green blog, The Green Room, “that we hope to develop into a vibrant conversation about helping people live better around the globe.” So says Andrea Thomas, who leads sustainability at Walmart.

Right now there are just a few questions to start the conversation. What do you think are the biggest challenges in sustainability? What do you wish we, as a company, could do to address an environmental or social issue? How could we help you reach your own sustainability goals?

I suppose it’s all to be expected. As Stacy Mitchell reports over at Grist, in a truly excellent series on Walmart’s green agenda and greenwash, since 2005 Walmart has really made a huge push on sustainability. As countless, often breathless, posts in the green media have documented (TreeHugger included, often, where Walmart contributes guest posts), the Borg-like mega-retailer from Bentonville does often talk the talk when it comes to environmental issues, and sometimes does walk the walk as well (sort of).

But it’s just not as it seems. Mitchell writes, between 2000 and 2005 Walmart share prices fell 20% and negative public opinion of Walmart reached a high of 38%.

As then-CEO Lee Scott told the New York Times, improving labor conditions would cost too much. It would also mean ceding some control to employees and perhaps even a union. Going green was a better option for repairing the company’s image. If offered ways to cut costs and, rather than undermining Walmart’s control, sustainability could actually augment its power over suppliers. Environmentalism also has strong appeal among urban liberals in the Northeast and West Coast—the very markets Walmart needed to penetrate in order to keep its US growth going.
By 2010, unfavorable views among the public of Walmart fell to 20%.

Read the entire series by Mitchell. It thoroughly pokes holes in nearly every one of Walmart’s green talking points. From how much renewable energy it says it uses (100%, a goal established in 2005) versus how much it actually uses (2%, independently verified), to Walmart’s impact on local businesses and agriculture, to issues that aren’t apparently even within the behemoth’s field of vision such as its contribution to furthering suburban sprawl and increased miles driven.

Ultimately Andy Revkin nails the central question in all this, another one which Walmart is unwilling to raise and needs to be raised about many global consumerist corporations as uncomfortable as it may be: Should Walmart even exist, can its business model be ever made compatible with a growing human population and decreasing resources?

Revkin writes in Dot Earth:

As some campaigners against over-consumption have pointed out, Wal-Mart is still selling consumerism even as it pledges to cut the social and environmental costs of making the stuff in its stores. Can we have it all? Can we have cheap shirts and disposable batters in a world heading toward 9 billion people seeking a decent life? I guess we’ll find out one way or the other.
The end of that certainly makes it seem like, for Revkin, Walmart’s existence is as assured as the sun rising tomorrow. But I am not willing to predict that, to go that far. Nor do I think Walmart or big box retailing or indeed globalized corporate free trade is the solution to people seeking a decent life—a worthy and needed ambition, alleviating poverty and the shocking income disparities we now have both globally and domestically.

In fact, I think it can be successfully argued that the Walmartization of retail, as well as the promotion of consumerism and corporatism are in fact major hindrances towards 9 billion people seeking decent lives in the coming decades, in a time of resource constraints, climate change, biodiversity loss, largely brought about by human population growth and consumerism.

Bringing it all back around: Mitchell concludes in the intro to her series that she often hears from environmental organizations and green-biz advocates, “Walmart is here to stay…The world’s largest retailer isn’t going away, the thinking goes, so anything it does to reduce its footprint is a good thing.”

I haven’t done it, but I bet if you search TreeHugger one of our writers has written something very close to those very words. Heck, I may have at one point, in some half-hearted attempt at finding the bright side of an ugly, confusing, confounding situation.

In the end though, when you look at the numbers on Walmart’s growth, past and planned, comparing the impact of that versus the genuine steps its taken to offset it, the situation is just not good and no conversation on a corporate green blog will change that.

By Matthew McDermott




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