Walmart, once almost universally reviled by the social responsibility-conscious, has won back trust in recent years with a number of moves: promising to develop a Sustainability Index to rate all products on its shelves, increasing renewable energy use, dramatically increasing the amount of local produce found on store shelves, opening up stores in food deserts across the U.S., and more. According to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), it’s not enough--and, in fact, Walmart’s sustainability strategy has given the company a bigger environmental footprint.
- Walmart might be greening its supply chain, but the company’s low prices and unreliable goods encourage our throwaway culture.
- Walmart announced seven years ago that it wanted to move to 100% renewable energy, but it currently only gets 2% of its power from solar and wind projects. Between 2005 and 2009, Walmart’s emissions actually grew 7%.
- The company’s Sustainability Index, intended to analyze the environmental impact of every product sold by Walmart, has yet to materialize over two years after it was announced (note: there was a five-year timetable given for the Index).
- Walmart’s ever-growing mass of stores is creating sprawl, shifting traffic patterns to make communities more auto-dependent, and possibly contributing large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere through land development.
- The retail chain is consolidating the food industry, accounting for 25% of U.S. food sales. It also charges too much for vegetables and dairy in food deserts (compared to meat, cereal, and canned vegetables) where healthy items are scarce.
It’s hard to argue against some of these points. Walmart, like all other businesses, wants to grow. In the case of a gigantic big box chain, that means expanding rapidly, often into areas that are best served by automobiles. And yes, Walmart’s big plans for renewable energy, product life-cycle analysis and food improvements have not yet all come to fruition. Some may never realize their full promise.
This doesn’t mean we should vilify Walmart. Yes, the company should be pressured to use more renewable energy--right now, it’s just cheaper and easier to keep using coal.
But the Sustainability Index was an incredibly ambitious undertaking from the beginning, and Walmart knew it. That doesn’t make it any less legitimate. While the report asks if "the index [was] just a PR ploy from the start," I tend to agree with journalist Marc Gunther on this one: that would be a silly PR move since most of the work on this is happening quietly behind the scenes. It takes a lot of time and effort to do life-cycle calculations for thousands of products.
Walmart’s food initiatives are far from perfect. But even the report admits: "For neighborhoods that are truly underserved, it seems hard to argue with the notion that having a Walmart nearby is better than relying on 7-11 and McDonald’s for meals."
As Brooke Buchanan, director of sustainability communications for Walmart, explained in a recent interview, "We didn’t necessarily know how we would achieve [our sustainability goals], but we believed then and we continue to believe now that it was the right thing to do for our business and the environment.” It’s better to set difficult sustainability goals than safe ones that are easy to meet.
There’s no question that Walmart has set some ambitious goals. Should it be taken to task when it fails to meet them? Of course. But as long as the company is trying--and I believe it is--we should not call for its demise. That won’t get rid of big box stores or sprawl. It’s not easy for a behemoth like Walmart to change its ways, but when it does, entire industries get shaken up.