2013-11-14

Co.Exist

Do Walmart's Sustainability Claims Actually Match Up To Reality?

Only a small sliver of Walmart's power sources come from renewables, despite a set of ambitious climate goals. But even small actions have a big impact when you're the largest company in the world.

A few weeks ago, we published a story looking at how Walmart has shaken up the renewable energy sector, setting up hundreds of solar installations, more than two dozen fuel cell installations, and experimenting with micro-wind and large wind projects. There's no denying the impact the world's largest company has when it decides to go renewable. But it can always do more to mitigate its climate impact, and that's what a new report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance reiterates: that the retail giant isn't doing enough.

When Walmart announced a set of sustainability goals in 2005--including a switch to 100% renewable energy and generating zero waste--environmental groups were hopeful. But, as the ILSR report points out, the company's greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, even without taking into account major pollution sources like international shipping, product manufacturing, and new store construction.

Walmart's emissions declined 1.3% in 2012, but the small drop could be explained by mild weather that year, according to ILSR. The company's greenhouse gas emissions have grown 10% overall since 2011, while its square footage has increased 40% and sales have grown 44%--so while emissions are rising, they are at least not rising as fast as the company is growing.

The report also notes that just 4% of Walmart's power comes from renewables, and its use of renewable power actually declined in 2012. Other major retailers, including Staples, Whole Foods, and Kohl's, manage to produce all of their energy from renewables.

These companies (and most other companies in the world) are much smaller than Walmart, however. Even though the vast majority of its power still comes from fossil fuel sources, Walmart makes it onto the EPA’s list of the top 30 retail users of green power, landing in third place behind Kohl's and Whole Foods. The company is also the largest on-site green power generator in the U.S., according to EPA, and has the most installed solar capacity in the country, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.

In an email, Walmart spokesperson Tara Raddohl defended the company's environmental record: “We’re working hard every day to find solutions to the most pressing sustainability issues. We have ambitious sustainability goals to improve our operations, increase fleet efficiency, source locally, and sell more sustainable products. The results speak for themselves--we’re showing that we can grow our business while slowing our GHG emissions, improve the supply chain, make renewable energy more affordable and serve our customers for generations to come,” she writes.

Stacy Mitchell, the author of the report, does admit that Walmart has made some progress. But on a press call for the report, she said: "The company does make some small steps, but it's unwilling to address or alter parts of its core business model. Whether it's sprawling stores, durability of products, or shipping of goods, none of those things are really on the table."

It's not just ILSR speaking up. Several prominent environmental groups, including the Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth, signed an open letter to Walmart, calling on the company to agree to a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, add more renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, and stop funding "anti-environmental politicians." The Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked extensively with Walmart on its environmental goals (and receives funding from the Walmart-owning Walton family), did not sign the letter.

Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace, said that "Walmart is the epitome of a key trend in our society that we need to change." Walmart, he says, is making money by underpaying its workers and "consuming natural resources at a rate unsustainable to the environment."

Walmart undoubtedly has work to do in treating its employees more fairly. It also has a ways to go before it reaches any of its sustainability goals. But its environmental progress should not be discounted entirely--as the EPA's green power list makes clear, even when Walmart lags behind, it still makes an impact because of its sheer size.

[Image: Trekandshoot via Shutterstock]

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