Friday, November 9, 2007

A Greener Wal-Mart?

There's been a lot of talk recently about the newly opened Wal-Mart Supercenter out in Monona. Much lip service has been paid to the more "environmentally friendly" tack the store is taking, all part of Wal-Mart CEO Scott Lee's plan to turn his company green.

It's a noble goal, and one that I support wholeheartedly, even though I don't shop at Wal-Mart and generally despise their business practices.

But like any good Wal-Mart skeptic, all the talk of sustainability made me wonder just how much work was being done to meet that goal. I hoped, because I'm an optimist at heart, that what Wal-Mart was claiming was true: that they were in fact cleaning up their act, making a serious effort at becoming a sustainable, eco-friendly business. Is that really possible for such a behemoth, though? Can a company that requires the sheer numbers of goods and services that Wal-Mart requires make good on its word?

An article in the Capital Times laid out what the new Monona Supercenter is boasting:

The new Wal-Mart is a little different from most, since it was built on an old torn-down retail area with little room for acres of surface parking. Shoppers can park in a 499-stall parking garage under the store, taking escalators to and fro, with a special escalator designed to hold shopping carts.

Rooftop skylights allow sunlight to pour into the building, saving electricity. Refrigeration system water is recirculated to help heat the building. Lights in freezer cases turn on when someone walks up and turn off when no one's there.

That all sounds pretty good to me. But then I found the following report, a critique of Wal-Mart's sustainability efforts put together by a coalition of interested organizations. Their conclusions don't lend well to the Wal-Mart PR machine's picture of the company. The following are just a few of the more interesting findings of the study:

Organics: Although the company announced plans to expand organic products, the Cornucopia Institute has documented incidents of Wal-Mart misrepresenting conventional food products as organics and charges that the company has attempted to drive down organic prices by using factory farm products of questionable quality, including some from China and other countries where regulations are weak.

Illegal Logging: Wal-Mart claims that it will remove illegal wood products from its supply chain. But the Environmental Investigation Agency charges that the company has failed to monitor its suppliers adequately. Moreover, Wal-Mart’s constant demand of decreased prices from its suppliers drives illegal logging, and some 47 percent of Wal-Mart’s wood-containing products are manufactured in China, which sources from countries known to have major problems with illegal logging.

Cypress Mulch: Wal-Mart is fueling the destruction of cypress forests, the Gulf Coast’s best natural storm and fl ooding protection, by distributing cypress mulch throughout the country. Wal-Mart was proud of their relief work after Hurricane Katrina, but now the company is endangering coastal communities and important wildlife along the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Restoration Network and the Save Our Cypress Coalition are working to convince Wal-Mart to drop this unsustainable product.

Global Warming: Wal-Mart’s goals for reducing global warming pollution leave many sources of greenhouse gases off the table. According to the Institute for Policy Studies and Friends of the Earth, the company’s supply chain creates more than 40 times the emissions the firm says it is aiming to eliminate. Combined with emissions from its retail operations, Wal-Mart’s greenhouse gases are the equivalent of about half the amount produced annually by France. Wal-Mart’s “cheap” imports are not cheap if you consider the estimated 2 million tons of annual
carbon emissions associated with shipping from China to U.S. ports, pollution from inefficient non-U.S. trucking fl eets, and the health impacts of port pollution on local communities. Wal-Mart’s contribution to sprawl has increased shopping travel to the point where traffic associated with its stores produces more carbon dioxide than all of its other U.S. greenhouse gas emissions combined.
And the report just goes on and on. While I acknowledge that the timbre of the report is pretty obviously biased against Wal-Mart, their findings have considerable merit and are worth further review.

I understand why people shop at big box retailers like Wal-Mart: often it's what you can afford, it's extremely convenient, and sometimes it's the only option a person has for certain goods in smaller towns. It's hard to begrudge someone the right to shop at Wal-Mart when there's no other place to go, or when their income dictates having to seek out the cheapest products.

People who can boycott the store should, but we also shouldn't turn our noses up at those who keep going. There should be a sustainable, affordable option for buying your essentials. Time and time again, though, Wal-Mart has shown that it is more interested in its huge bottom line than it is in the welfare of the people who shop (and work) there and their planet.

A few cosmetic improvements to make themselves look better in the eyes of the communities they come to, like the token efforts at greening the store in Monona (which are a step in the right direction, but only a step), are not enough to undo the years of damage they've already done, and will continue to do, until they are finally held truly accountable and made to take drastic, long-term measures to improve the way they do business.

This goes for all of the big box retailers, the number of which has grown considerably in recent years, mostly on the far east and west side of the city. Wal-Mart is easier to pick on because they are so ubiquitous, and because their violations are many and varied. But the trend toward giant stores is a bad one in general, helping to create sprawl, increase the use of automobiles, degrade the land they're on, and more.

There's a better way to meet the needs of a community, ways that are sustainable in more ways than one. In-fill, the idea of building a city up rather than out, is one good idea. Holding the bigger businesses to higher standards is another. Limiting the size of big box stores, or indeed banning them outright, is another option. The possibilities are out there, researched, proven. Like anything, it just lacks the community willpower to get it done, and that, perhaps above all else, is what we need to work to change.


Vic said...

I really liked your post on the subject of a greener Walmart. When I first became interested in "green products", my biggest frustration, was that green technology was not afforadable for the majority. I went to a conference in Minneapolis on green design (mostly architecture and interior design products), and everyone there was patting themselves on the back for building homes with no formaldehyde in the cabinet wood, no off-gassing from the carpets, solar panel rooftops, and natural light galore. Of course, one of those houses would run you $500,000 or more depending on the location.

I think the entry of green technology to market can be thought of like any other technology. Those early adopters pay a premium, but over time, the price comes down once more and more producers adopt these practices. Then again, many of the mass-produced tech products fail in terms of quality, and this is clearly the case for Walmart. I don't think that Walmart expects that with these small steps, they will instantly absolve themselves from years of breaching consumer trust. It would be a step in the right direction if their claims of "greening their process" came to be true. If it's just a PR scheme, then give 'em hell.

They're not along. Ford "greening the blue oval", has been one pretty successful campaign, but they've made real changes to their mfg processes. While their Model U car never left the concept car category, the research that went into it has laid the groundwork for real changes in their consumer car designs.

I think consumers should still be vigilant in investigating product claims by these larger manufacturers, but give credit where credit is due. If they can bring down the price of green tech, making it more available and affordable for all, kudos.

Emily said...

Vic, I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for commenting!

The Lost Albatross