Two years ago, Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott announced a bold initiative to turn the world's largest corporation green. After numerous delays, the company has finally released a first progress report.
So how much greener are they? To find out, you first need to wade through 40 pages of data on other various and sundry issues. For example, the report boasts that company employees enrolled in a Personal Sustainability Project lost a combined total of 184,315 pounds in 2006 (1.3 pounds per enrollee).
There's also a glowing review of health benefits, even though less than half of employees buy into a company plan that many have criticized as unaffordable on a Wal-Mart paycheck. (The company pays full-time employees an average of $10.76 per hour and refuses to disclose part-timer pay).
The company brags about its charitable giving, highlighting that it has handed out over half a million dollars in one Chicago neighborhood selected as its first Jobs and Opportunity Zone. (The report doesn't mention that Chicago is a hotbed of opposition. Activists have blocked one Supercenter, and in 2006 the mayor had to use veto power to kill a measure that would've required all big box retailers to pay decent wages and benefits.)
But what about the much-hyped environmental goals? For two years, CEO Scott has received laudatory press for his pledge that Wal-Mart will some day be supplied entirely by renewable energy, create zero waste, and sell sustainable products.
The centerpiece of Scott's green initiative has been his promise to reduce global warming pollution from existing stores by 20 percent by the year 2012. A look at the results so far reveals why these indicators are buried in the back of the report. On page 47, we learn that the company's carbon emissions actually increased by nine percent in 2006. On the goal of producing zero waste, the report merely states that a "measurement tool is in development."
To his credit, Scott admits in the report that there is "work ahead of us." However, what he is likely never to admit is that even if he achieved all of his stated goals, Wal-Mart's business model is inherently unsustainable.
The Big Box Collaborative, a loose network of groups committed to transforming the "Wal-Mart Economy," released a damning critique of the company's sustainability initiative in September. With contributions from 23 organizations, the report blasts many of Wal-Mart's efforts to provide "sustainable" products as greenwashing. Food and Water Watch, for example, charges that the seafood certification program, the Marine Stewardship Council, has a record of accrediting fisheries with poor environmental records and questions whether seafood could ever be sourced sustainably on the massive scale Wal-Mart requires.
The bulk of the report argues that Wal-Mart will never be a sustainable company as long as it is a major contributor to sprawl, relies on sourcing products from the other side of the globe, and pursues a business model based on slashing costs to the bone.
The report points out, for example, that the company's global warming goals leave many sources of greenhouse gases off the table, including all the pollution spewed by the company's tens of thousands of supplier factories and the ships that haul all the stuff from China. In total, Wal-Mart is responsible for greenhouse gases that are the equivalent of nearly half the amount produced by the entire country of France, according to analysis by Friends of the Earth and the Institute for Policy Studies.
Wal-Mart also ignores the environmental costs of all the car traffic associated with consumer travel to its stores. Supercenters on town outskirts are accessible mainly by driving, resulting in increased traffic and customers having to travel longer distances for their shopping. The carbon dioxide produced by customers driving to Wal-Mart stores is more than all of its other U.S. greenhouse gas emissions combined, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has said that "We need to be sustainable companies and countries made up of people who live sustainable lives." In reality, the company has done little to improve the lives of its workers the world over.
In the Big Box Collaborative report, WakeUpWalMart.com charges that that no company has done more to feed our nation's health care crisis, while American Rights at Work exposes the company's aggressive interference with union organizing. The International Labor Rights Forum, STITCH, ActionAid International USA, and Agribusiness Accountability Initiative reveal how Wal-Mart has used its market power to cut costs at the expense of workers and producers in the developing world.
Wal-Mart's massive scale also undermines the independent businesses that form the fabric of healthy, sustainable communities. Global Exchange and the Mexican group CILAS look at how the company has hurt communities, jobs and the environment in Mexico, where it is also the leading retailer. Jobs with Justice and the American Independent Business Alliance share first-hand accounts of community impacts and resistance, while Good Jobs First documents how Wal-Mart has strained communities by pocketing massive subsidies - at least $1.2 billion to date.
And while Wal-Mart boasts about being an environmental leader, Corporate Ethics International reveals that two-thirds of the company's campaign contributions in the last election went to candidates who earned failing grades from the League of Conservation Voters.
In short, for Wal-Mart to be considered truly green, it would need to completely overhaul its business model. And that's a fact that's hard to bury in a glossy corporate report.