Can Walmart Be an Engine of Change for Sustainability?

by Cole Mellino (with JR’s commentary at the end)

Walmart’s million-dollar donation to Growing Power, an urban farm that employs teens in a low-income neighborhood in Milwaukee, has created a lot of controversy.

This is nothing new for the world’s largest retailer, grocer, and private employer. Walmart has been criticized for unfair labor practices, gender discrimination, creating wasteful products, and even destroying entire communities.

Many charitable campaigns or sustainability initiatives Walmart undertakes tend to be met with suspicion from the company’s critics, who contend that the company is merely trying to improve its public image. But on the sustainability front, Walmart says it does care — primarily for financial reasons. Saving energy saves money. And meeting the demand for organic foods makes money.

Over the past few years, Walmart has rolled out a number of sustainability initiatives like improving the efficiency of its truck fleet, installing solar at 30 locations, launching initiatives to support small farmers, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 million metric tons by 2015, among many others.

Walmart’s critics are skeptical. But as Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an organization that works closely with Walmart to green its operations, points out: “The whole idea is to change the world. If you want to change the world, it’s important to work with some of the big forces in the world.”

There’s a split of opinion within the environmental movement about this approach. Some believe that Walmart — even with solar panels, energy efficient lighting and a few organic food products — represents a culture of consumerism that contributes to our environmental problems.

Those who side with Krupp argue that Walmart will drive the market toward more sustainable products. As a leading global retailer, the company can encourage smaller suppliers to get behind the kind of standards it demands.

Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, defended the grant from Walmart, which will allow his program in Milwaukee to expand to 20 community food centers in more than 15 states.

Walmart is the world’s largest distributor of food—there is no one better positioned to bring high-quality, locally grown food into urban food deserts and fast-food swamps. We can no longer be so idealistic that we hurt the very people we’re trying to help. Keeping groups that have the money and the power to be a significant part of the solution away from the Good Food Revolution will not serve us. At the same time, by accepting grants like these we retain the power for how corporate money is spent, and the grassroots movement stays grassroots.

For better or worse, Walmart and other big-box retailers are powerful forces in our economy and our energy system. Will we harness them to be enablers of environmental change?

— Cole Mellino is an intern on the energy team at the Center for American Progress. Stephen Lacey contributed to this story.

JR:  My  biggest concern about Walmart is that their sustainability initiatives, which are impressive, don’t stop them from sourcing a large fraction of their products from China.  China’s   self-destructive rapaciousness — at least in terms of coal plant construction —  now surpasses ours.  Their total CO2 emissions are 40% higher than ours already and headed toward 100% higher by 2010.  So their goods are ridiculously carbon intensive, even more when you factor in transportation.  So Walmart cannot be considered a sustainable company or even one that contributes to sustainability until they  factor in an implicit or “shadow” CO2 price in the life-cycle assessment of their supply chain.  They should start with $30 a ton CO2 price, rising to $60 to $90 by 2010.

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9 Responses to Can Walmart Be an Engine of Change for Sustainability?

  1. Leif says:

    “Their total CO2 emissions are 40% higher than ours already and headed toward 100% higher by 2010.” I recall reading that a significant portion of China’s green house gas foot print can be accounted for by their efforts to supply western products. As much as 40% in some estimates. Add to that as Joe mentions, the shipping costs from there to here and the savings of local grown with a green power economy and home jobs really add up for the 99% of the American people.

  2. Ryan Wozniak says:

    As someone who studies urban planning, I can also add to the fact that the scale of big-box stores make them more carbon intensive (and whatever other pollution that comes from car technology now and going into the future). The scale of the big box store doesn’t lend itself to a walkable (or even bikeable) urban landscape. These stores would have to be able to scale down their operations to complete the environmental transition (beyond the other things mentioned in this post). However, Walmart does have its neighborhood markets that I’ve seen a few examples of, and that scale of operation is promising.

  3. otter17 says:

    Hmmm, Walmart sure put my $20 donation to Growing Power to shame.

  4. Jeff Green says:

    #They should start with $30 a ton CO2 price, rising to $60 to $90 by 2010.#

    I believe you mean a different year than 2010.

  5. Alteredstory says:

    I think they can help in the short term, but the brand of consumerism they currently represent and thrive on is not sustainable.

  6. dan allen says:

    ha ha…Wal-Mart’s only sustainable in the sense that it helps speed entropic collapse of a grossly unsustainable civilization.

  7. Michael Tucker says:

    I hear that all the time…why can’t I get that product made in America? Well, go ask Apple! But if you want that spatula or picture frame made in America, paying American wages, you had better be ready to pay more…much more! When I was a kid it was made in Japan that signified cheap labor and cheap products so, after all the intervening years, it is not a surprise at all to see that so much of the worlds merchandise is now made in countries like China and Thailand. But, with so many corporations ignoring ANY kind of effort to reduce CO2 emissions and with all the other retail stores selling the same China made products, I find it hard to critize Walmart.

  8. Jody Bowen says:

    As someone who has worked in the recycling industry for many years I can say that Wal-Mart has made substantial contributions to sustainability and pushing the industry forward. They recycle several million tons per year which helps many recycling operations to stay economically viable. In addition, if you want to be a supplier for Wal-Mart you better be prepared to show how your company is “green”, i.e. my packaging is made from recycled content.

    It’s true they represent the consumer culture but at least they are pushing that culture in a more sustainable direction. You gotta start somewhere.

  9. Marc Ferguson says:

    The concern should be whether anything that Wal*Mart or others do can be expected to continue. Or put another way, it can be undone at any time. I for one, don’t think Wal*Mart can be trusted in this way. The moment it hurts their sales or share price, it’s over, and the efforts of green partners are wasted. That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities with big movers, but they should be fundamentally inclined to benefit from the action. General Electric is a perfect example. They have a massive water treatment and desalinization vertical. Do you trust them to be better shepherds of water conservation than Pepsi? I do. If it were me, I would tell Wal*Mart to earn the distinction of becoming green by investing heavily in the efforts for YEARS before letting them suck up any valuable activities of the those who are authentic about change.