Wal-Mart reaches beyond low-hanging fruit

Written by tim


I’m a bit late to this story, but a few weeks ago Wal-Mart pledged to cut 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from their supply chain by 2015. Catalyzing steps like this make it a lot harder for me, as a full-fledged environmentalist, to hate on Wal-Mart, though there are others who are doing so.

The greenhouse gases embodied within Wal-Mart’s products greatly outweigh the energy use associated with the stores themselves. Tackling the carbon intensity of the predominant part of a product’s lifecycle, its creation and delivery to retail stores, represents a crucial shift in thinking about how sustainability could be achieved through the framework of Wal-Mart’s incredibly large business.

Partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund, Wal-Mart is voluntarily taking on the enormous task of reducing greenhouse gases down the supply-chain. What I really like about the goal is that an independent educational research organization will devise the methodologies to make reductions, Wal-Mart will implement them, a third party will analyze the numbers, and a major accounting firm will verify that all procedures were followed consistently to guarantee reductions actually occurred. This is an awful lot like how carbon offsets are created in a high-quality voluntary market, and gives me a lot of confidence that these reductions are real.

It can be easy to dismiss Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiatives as window dressing, but the effects of achieving this goal would be tremendous. Because of its market share, even those who refrain from buying at Wal-Mart will likely see lower carbon-intensity products at other retailers, which is unquestionably a good thing. I’m impressed by Wal-Mart for looking past efficient lighting fixtures in their stores to the products that light falls on.

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  1. Rob Morris

    It is important that as environmentalists we do not become too cynical about the ulterior motive of large companies who are taking positive steps — it is enough that they are taking real steps.
    Much better to positively reward such steps – even if the reasons behind them are ultimately cynical we all still win.
    So; I applaud wall-mart for this important step! Let’s see more large companies join the bandwagon.

  2. Lee Trucks

    After years of working to maximize the vulgarity and prodigality of our car/consumerist culture, it’s good to see the giant take a look at what it has created. It’s not enough, but at least it’s in the right direction. Wal-Mart does listen to critics, but we can’t let the fact that they’ve listened a little make us complacent.

  3. Daniel Piser

    How much does this initiative just push the taking of environmental responsibility down to their suppliers. Will this cost Wal-Mart anything? Or will they just get the benefit of looking like a ‘good citizen’ while still having poor to terrible labor policies.

  4. Tom Harrison

    You know, WalMart is ruthless and efficient about pretty much everything they do. In the past they got a (well-deserved) bad rep for really putting the screws to vendors, employees, local retailer and the like.
    But they see to have got religion on sustainability. I would prefer to think that they are doing this as a strategic cost-saving measure (rather than as a PR move). Their first brush with this was a few years ago when they (demanded that their vendors) redesign packaging to be smaller. They saved some massive amount in shipping costs … and incidentally in CO2, etc.
    WalMart is notable because they are so huge and have so much power. While it is true that they could be stupid like ExxonMobil and stick their heads in the sand, they seem to be realizing that there are both immediate tactical benefit and potentially long-term strategic plays.
    I’m a died-in-the-wool environmentalist, but I am also trained in economics. WalMart seems to be on a path that marries these two often conflicting forces. And there’s no better resource than EDF to keep them focused and on the right path.
    Go WalMart! (Yikes, that just doesn’t sound right, does it?)

  5. Lee Trucks

    I think this is absolutely right. It will get pushed down, but I’m not sure that the effect will be the same as Wal-Mart’s obsession with cheapness. We know that the obsession with cheapness has been deleterious to products, labor and the environment, not to mention American workers, the balance of trade and foreign relations. Do you think that Wal-Mart insisting that products be produced in an environmentally responsible manner will have similar effects? This may be one case where Wal-Mart’s enormous power ends up doing something good.

  6. big al

    Why not do a story on the attorney who helped make this possible;Cory Briggs of San Diego?

  7. Timothy Graffius

    This is probably an advertising gimmick that will fall on the backs of the employees and vendors. They can’t monitor all the cheap forign labor who make most everything walmart sells.
    Buy USA made goods.

  8. michael

    At some level Wallmart is any easy target, they are big. But for a moment lets suppose Wallmart were out of the picture supplanted by many – if not many more – smaller companies without the resources and or focus to be green.
    The economy of scale instrinsic to companies like Wallmart, to my way of thinking, make it easier to change – be greener – effectively.

  9. Anonymous

    I agree!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Lorne Craig

    I was at the WalMart Green Business Summit where they announced this initiative, and I agree with the posters above who both applaud the direction and realize it’s basically a push on WalMart’s vendors to make it happen.
    I did get a chance to ask Matt Sistler, WalMart’s VP of Sustainability, about whether they were at all examining Walmart’s overall business model of selling more stuff to more people. In short: No.
    If you want to read more about that exchange, here’s the link: http://unicyclecreative.com/wordpress/2010/02/david-suzuki-vs-walmart-ceo-the-2010-walmart-canada-green-business-summit-recap/

  11. Anonymous

    Let us know when they plan on obeying basic labor laws.
    You are still talking about Walmart.

  12. Lee Trucks

    Wal-Mart has been cited as a leader in innovation in a number of areas, but lets not give them too much credit. Their sheer size sometimes makes it easier to push technology to the outer edges of its empire, but let’s face it: they have invented no technology. They have taken certain trends and accelerated them…like outsourcing. There was a strong trend to move manufacturing overseas before Wal-Mart purposely forced the issue. There’s a good argument that the move toward a global economy would have been less disruptive if it had happened as a more normal process. Certain technologies might have been more widely dispersed had not Wal-Mart sucked all the air out of markets.

  13. Karen

    buy U.S. goods. That is the key. We have OSHA regulations that protect workers (customers) but which cost the suppliers more money. That gives them a competitive disadvantage when it comes to price. But price is NOT everything. Customers should finally wake up and buy the products that they are producing.. and produce quality products.. U.S. products.. not ship massive amounts of cheap junk half way around the world. If this is what Walmart is talking about then even I can start shopping there again.

  14. Timothy Graffius

    I agree with you Karen.
    I don’t trust Walmart. I feel that this is just an advertising gimmick. What will most likely happen is that thu US SUPPLIERS will suffer the burden alone. All the forign Slave worker based suppliers will cheat on the standards just like they probably always do.