Small Wages, Huge Pollution: New Report Exposes Walmart's Coal-Saturated Climate Destruction

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Small Wages, Huge Pollution: New Report Exposes Walmart's Coal-Saturated Climate Destruction

Undermining claims of 'leadership in sustainability,' new report reveals mega-retailers heavy dependence on coal-fired electricity

Environmental leaders call on Walmart to stop greenwashing and commit to real sustainability. (Image: ILSR.org)

A coalition of environmental and social justice leaders on Thursday rallied around a new report exposing Walmart's enormous annual consumption of coal and demanded the giant corporation stop calling itself a leader on sustainability if it chooses to depend on one of the world's most polluting energy sources to fuel its global retail empire.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance study—titled Walmart’s Dirty Energy Secret: How the Company’s Slick Greenwashing Hides Its Massive Coal Consumption—co-authored by Stacy Mitchell and Walter Wuthmann, describes how despite lofty rhetoric and unmet promises the company is one of the world's leading carbon polluters and consumers of coal on the planet, burning a "staggering" 4.2 million tons of coal every year.

"Walmart should stop investing in being a bigger company and start investing in being a better one. That means paying a livable wage and making a real investment renewable energy. It means no longer paving fields and forests for new stores. It means no longer crushing local economies, and allowing a diversity of small, locally rooted, and often far more sustainable enterprises and economic systems to take root. And it means making rapid and significant reductions in that four- million-ton mountain of coal."

Calculating the total electricity use, coal-fired power consumption and resulting greenhouse gas emissions of every Walmart store and distribution center in the country, the report found that Walmart operations in the U.S. alone consume nearly six times the amount of electricity as the entire U.S. auto industry. In total, coal continues to be energy source most utilized by the company, amounting to 75 percent of the company’s total emissions from U.S. electricity use.

“Walmart has made remarkably little progress in moving to renewable energy, while other national retailers and many small businesses are now generating a sizable share of their power from clean sources,” said Mitchell. “Despite making a public commitment to sustainability nine years ago, Walmart still favors dirty coal-generated electricity over solar and wind, because the company insists on using the cheapest power it can find.”

According to the report:

Walmart uses more electricity than the residents of Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined. Walmart is a bigger consumer of power than many manufacturing industries, from automobiles to wood products. Its U.S. energy use — 19,500,000 megawatt hours — equals the power consumption of every industrial facility in New Jersey and West Virginia put together.

Almost a decade ago, when Walmart announced it would become a sustainability leader and shift to renewable power, then-CEO Lee Scott declared that the climate crisis was a key motivation. “The science is in and it is overwhelming,” he said. “We believe every company has a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as it can.” But Walmart’s unwillingness to invest in alternatives in much of the country, where grid power is cheap, and heavy on coal, has meant that the company’s reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuels has changed very little from the day Scott made this speech. And its greenhouse gas emissions are even higher.

Joining ILSR in its condemnation of Walmart's "greenwashing tactics" and overall pollution were other green advocacy groups, including 350.org, Green For All, and Sierra Club. Leaders of those organizations all made the connection between the way Walmart is known to treat its low-paid, non-unionized worker force and what the ILSR report shows about how it treats the planet.

“It’s unconscionable that the country’s largest employer and the world’s largest company is choosing to hurt our planet and hurt working families with its dirty operations and poverty pay,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder and president of 350.org. “Walmart and the Waltons can help our communities truly live better by switching to clean energy and paying workers a fair wage.” 

“Rather than fulfill the climate commitments it’s been making for years, Walmart is continuing to hurt the health and prosperity of our communities and families while endangering our planet," added Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club. “Walmart can start living up to its purported values by ending the company’s heavy reliance on dirty coal and respecting their workers.”

And it doesn't have to be that way, said Green For All executive director Jeremy Hays. “Walmart could single-handedly strengthen the middle class and help create a vibrant clean energy economy that promotes good jobs."

"After years of empty promises," he said, "Walmart should use be using its power and wealth to build stronger and more sustainable communities, not disrespecting workers and endangering the future of our planet.”

Unfortunately, the record of Walmart does not bode well for hopeful outcomes.

Last year, another report by ILSR found that since Walmart launched its environmental campaign in 2005, the company’s self-reported greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 14 percent. And more recently, a study  published last month found that the Walton family – the majority owners of Walmart – are impeding America’s transition to a clean energy future and funding nearly two dozen anti-solar groups that are waging state and national fights to roll back clean energy policies.

What should the company do?

According to the report's authors, Walmart "should stop investing in being a bigger company and start investing in being a better one. That means paying a livable wage and making a real investment renewable energy. It means no longer paving fields and forests for new stores. It means no longer crushing local economies, and allowing a diversity of small, locally rooted, and often far more sustainable enterprises and economic systems to take root. And it means making rapid and significant reductions in that four- million-ton mountain of coal."

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