"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.