How Big Is The Gap Between Walmart's Sustainability Rhetoric & The Reality?

Perhaps no other corporation elicits such strong reactions in the environmental community as Walmart—thanks largely to the impact the mega-retailer has on communities' small businesses and development patterns, contrasted with pledges to green up their act and potential market impact if the reality ever meets the rhetoric.

The latest independent assessment of that gap between talking about and walking the green path comes via the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Stacy Mitchell.

Mitchell did an excellent series of posts on Walmart's eco-credibility for Grist not too long ago. Much of the info in the Walmart's Greenwash report overlaps with that series, but now it's all compiled in a handy 31-page PDF.

It's definitely worth checking out, especially in combination with Mother Jones' recent reporting on how Walmart's sustainability efforts in their supply chain are and aren't being put into practice (mostly aren't, the article concludes, at least not to the degree the Bentonville marketing department would have you believe).

Here are some of the bullet-pointed highlights:

  • Though Walmart has positioned itself near the top of the EPA list of corporate green power purchasers, it has done so by somewhat juking the stats, calculating it's renewable energy usage on stores in just certain states. Though the company has pledged to go 100% renewable, nationally just 2% of its electricity comes from renewable sources. It will take 300 years at current rates of expansion to hit its target.

  • Despite genuine efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, theses projects "are too modest to match the scale of the company's operations." In other words, company expansion is outpacing efforts to reduce climate impact.

  • "Walmart's price pressure on manufacturers is undermining the quality and durability of consumer goods, which has contributed to a sharp increase in the amount of stuff Americans buy and a doubling of the trash households generate."

    The report points out that since 1995, the price of household goods has fallen by about one-third. We're now buying small household appliances (and disposing of the old ones) at a rate of 279 million annually, up from 188 million in the mid-90s. On average Americans buy a new television (and probably dispose of an older one) every 2.5 years, up from 3.4 years. We're now buying more than 2 billion bath towels every year, increased from 1.4 billion in 1994.

    We are long past the point of cheaper goods benefitting anyone in the US and well into uneconomic growth here, shifting from increased wealth to what Herman Daly would call illth.

    Walmart's slogan "Saving people money so they can live better" may be true if you simply define living better as buying more stuff, but based on any objective international definition of resource consumption very nearly every single person in the US has long since passed the "live better" standard. Not to mention that all that trash, waste and pollution associated with it all means that somebody, someplace is actually living in a worse-off environment.

  • "Walmart has not addressed the habitat and climate impacts of its land development practices. The retailer continues to build sprawling stores on undeveloped land, often just a few miles from older, vacated Walmart stores."

    Mitchell notes that since Walmart launched its sustainability blitz in 2005, the total amount of store space in the US it has has increased by one-third, adding more than 1,100 new supercenters, "almost all built on land that hadn't been developed before Walmart showed up."

There's much more in the report—all of it copiously footnoted and referenced, by the way—but I want to leave you with one final quote, which really gets to the heart of the importance of examining the system as a whole in determining environmental impact, and the limitations of defining impact just in terms of direct climate or ecosystem effects.

The Biggest Environmental Impact Isn't Even Considered
Talking about the impact Walmart has had on sprawling development and increase driving miles from 1990 to 2000 (the average US household's annual mileage for shopping increased 1,000 miles in this time period), Mitchell writes:

The climate implications of all this are huge. To get a sense of the magnitude, say we attribute 10 percent of the increase in shopping related driving since 1990 to Walmart. That's probably conservative given how fast the company grew and the degree to which its stores have altered land use and traffic patterns, but 10 percent is Walmart's current share of retail spending, so it's a fair number to use. That would mean Walmart's share of the extra miles driven is resulting in more than 5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year in the US. That's almost a quarter of the company's reported global CO2 emissions, which were at 21 million tons in 2009. Add in all of the untallied climate effects of Walmart's sprawl strategy and you can see how the company's true carbon footprint balloons.

Walmart's land-use impacts indirectly contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than all of its reported greenhouse gas emissions combined. And, yes, land use is utterly absent from Walmart's sustainability program.

Playing devil's advocate, it is true that it may be asking too much of any company to start calculating every unintended consequence of its activities. Boundaries always have to be drawn. But that doesn't mean that those unintended consequences aren't all too genuine, or that they should be ignored. Whether at the individual, community, corporate, national or international level, both the direct and indirect effects of our actions need to be acknowledged and dealt with.

How Big Is The Gap Between Walmart's Sustainability Rhetoric & The Reality?
One of the biggest environmental impacts of Walmart's business model isn't even talked about in its sustainability planning.

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