You Must Read: Walmart’s Greenwash

Walmart is big.  Everyone with any exposure to the company understands on some level that Walmart is very large, even in a world where multi-national corporations have taken on sizes that dwarf many countries.  Quoting from their own website, “Walmart serves customers and members more than 200 million times per week at more than 10,130 retail units under 69 different banners in 27 countries. With fiscal year 2012 sales of $443 billion, Walmart employs 2.2 million associates worldwide.”  That size is hard to understand.

If Walmart were considered a country, it would have the 23rd highest nominal GDP in the world just ahead of Saudi Arabia.  Walmart is the world’s third largest employer trailing on the United States Department of Defense and China’s People’s Liberation Army.

This size, quite simply, means that Walmart’s moves—good, bad, or otherwise—have an enormous impact on the markets, governments, and ecosystems in which it operated.  Put another way, what Walmart does on its own has an appreciable impact on the planet.

Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has authored an excellent report that details the myth of Walmart’s much lauded move toward a more sustainable future entitled Walmart’s Greenwash: How the company’s much-publicized sustainability campaign falls short, while its relentless growth devastates the environment.

In 2005, Walmart launched its sustainability campaign.  On its own website, the sustainability goals are stated clearly.  Too bad it is entirely crap.

Page 4of the report pretty much lays out the statistics in stark terms.  Take for example:

  • 698 million: total square footage of Walmart’s U.S. stores in 2011
  • 641 million: total square footage of Manhattan—yes the entire island give or take a few bodegas

What the report shows is that Walmart landed one of the all-time PR coups.  People started to view the company more favorably—38 percent of people had an unfavorable view of the company in 2005 and by 2010 that same viewpoint had fallen to 20 percent—without the company having to do much outside of issue some press releases.

Take for example the Sustainability Index.  Launched in 2009 under the aegis of its larger sustainability campaign, the Sustainability Index was supposed to be a way to assess the sustainability of every product that Walmart sold.  Been to Walmart lately?  Seen any Sustainability Index references on the shelves?  Nope.  It’s greenwashing, pure and simple.

The report also nails Walmart for its greatest green sin: sprawl.  Walmart’s land use and development patterns are a nightmare.  The model is to build gigantic stores on greenfield sites that encourage car use and have acres of parking.  Essentially everything we have learned about smart development is ignored by a Walmart supercenter.  About the only “green” claim a store like this could make is that it reduces the number of trips required to purchase all of one’s goods.  It’s all available in store for everyday low prices.

I find the most troubling thing about Walmart going forward, as highlighted in this report and Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating , is its apparent takeover of the retail grocery market in the U.S.  In 2011, Walmart captured 25 percent of the total U.S. grocery spend of $550 billion.  In some markets, Walmart’s market share is 50 percent or greater.  Consider that prior to Walmart entering the grocery business it was a fractured and regional market.

As Raj Patel, the most excellent observer of the food industry, points out that the food system has become warped.  It used to be that the system worked by a lot of producers selling to a lot of consumers through a large number of retailers or manufacturers.  However, the system is now squeezed in the middle.  Power and control are being increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few manufacturers or retailers who move or even make markets.  Check out his presentation at UC Berkeley’s Edible Education.

This is the reason we end up with things like pink slime…er “lean beef trimmings.”  Heck, Walmart has barely touched this issue while a lot of other traditional grocers moved quickly to stop selling meat with the nasty leftover scraps treated with ammonia.  If Walmart did not capture one-quarter of the U.S. grocery spend, do you think that the company would be as obdurate about stopping the sale of meat containing pink slime?

In the end, none of this should be surprising.  Walmart is a publicly traded company.  Why is this important?  Because the reason for being of the modern publicly traded company is maximizing shareholder value, which is translated into beat year-over-year targets for revenue and profit growth.  Everything else is secondary or less to that driving mantra.  Walmart is hyper-focused on revenue and profit growth.  Something like the environment is not going to get in its way.

At the end of Walmart’s Greenwash Stacy Mitchell posits four ways that everyone can do to hold Walmart accountable:

  1. Push the media to hold Walmart accountable
  2. Focus on the right question
  3. Recognize Walmart’s economic power as a threat to the environment
  4. Don’t lose sight of labor issues

While I agree with all of those points as a basis for holding any large multi-national accountable there is one thing missing from the equation—do not shop at Walmart.  Each dollar you spend at Walmart enables the beast.

Remember, as large as a company like Walmart seems, even the largest and most successful companies fall victim to their own hubris or stupidity.  Who in the 1950s would have thought that Woolworth’s would be defunct by the close of the Twentieth Century?  Or that Pan Am, the icon of air travel, would go belly-up in 1991?  No one.  Not even the people who ran those companies. 

Heck, on September 14, 2008 how many people on Wall Street would have thought Lehman Brothers would cease to exist the following day?  The world can change as if it were on a hinge.  Even for people who think they are masters of the universe.

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