Walmart: No more divide and conquer

Over the past several years, Walmart — the largest retailer in the United States by a factor of, well, a lot — has paraded out a series of sustainability initiatives, from energy efficient lighting in its stores to, more recently, a much-touted effort to bring fresh food to urban areas.

More than a few environmentalists have been won over, citing the power of the behemoth retailer to move suppliers, distributors and others in its supply chain toward sustainability. What could be bad, they argue, about Walmart using its purchasing power to open new markets for organic products or to close them for chemicals like the flame retardant PDBE?

But as writer Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance pointed out in a thoughtful and well-researched series of posts at Grist over the past year, Walmart’s motives are not entirely, or even perhaps even mainly, green-hearted:

“With [the environmental groups’] endorsements and the flood of positive press that seems to follow each of Walmart’s green announcements, the company has managed to turn around flagging poll numbers, shift its labor practices out of the limelight, and, most crucially, crank up its expansion machine.”

Greenwashing isn’t new, nor is it, in the case of Walmart, particularly surprising. The company has waged public relations battles with everyone from labor unions to anti-sprawl advocates for decades. Neither is it fair to say that companies with suspect motives are incapable of doing good things.

But the question of Walmart’s intentions — whether they are rooted in a shrewd public relations strategy or the desire to maximize financial returns or even a spirit of environmental good will — is important, because those intentions are a good indicator of the likelihood the company will follow through on its current green promises (and go deeper still) even if it means questioning some of the company’s core business practices.

The company’s follow-through, as it turns out, has been mixed at best. Take the case of clean energy, which Walmart promised would supply 100% of its energy needs in the coming years. That audacious goal was splashed across the news media when it was announced, but today, Mitchell reports:

“Walmart currently derives less than 2 percent of its electricity from its solar projects and wind-power purchases…At its current pace of converting to renewables, it would take Walmart about 300 years to get to 100 percent clean power.”

Which begs the question:  have environmentalists been snookered? And if so, what’s the best strategy for gaining the upper hand with Walmart?

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be sharing a number of Stacy Mitchell’s pieces from Grist on our Facebook page and here on the blog, including her recommendations for keeping Walmart on the hot seat. We’re interested in hearing what you think.

We’ll also be encouraging Story of Stuff Community members to support an effort later this month by Walmart workers to highlight the impact the company has had on them, their families and communities.

Supporting these workers makes moral sense – they are our neighbors. But it also makes strategic sense. When environmentalists make common cause with Walmart workers’ efforts to win respect in the workplace – as well as the efforts of small businesses, community leaders, farmers, factory owners and others – then Walmart won’t be able to pit us against each other or buy us off with lofty promises.

No, when we stand together, they’ll have to deal with us. And we’ll be asking for more than window dressing.

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