Greenwashing Walmart

Source: CorpWatch Blog

Is Walmart going green? Mike Duke, the company’s CEO, says in a new 126 page report that the company is becoming more sustainable and responsible while “building meaningful, long-term change.” Activists disagree. Walmart’s “environmental impact has only grown over the last seven years” they say in a counter-report. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price movie poster

Walmart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, runs giant discount retail stores that sell consumer goods at rock bottom prices. It has grown to become the world’s largest private employer with 2011 sales of $421.85 billion. The company has been a major target for union activists like United Food and Commercial Workers which started the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign and the Service Employees International Union which started Walmart Watch (The two unions have since merged and so has the campaign) It was also the subject of a critical film: “The High Cost of Low Price” produced by Robert Greenwald in 2005.

Walmart responded by hiring public relations advisers and teaming up with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2005. It was an easy solution – EDF has a history of working with big business: For example, in 1990 EDF signed a partnership with McDonald’s to begin a recycling program, one of the first instances of “greenwashing” – a tactic by which companies “preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment and enemies of poverty.” (as defined by Kenny Bruno in the Greenpeace Book On Greenwash issued in 1992) The New York-based NGO has since signed agreements with the Carlyle Group, Citibank and FedEx.

On Monday, Walmart released a list of top ten “sustainability” achievements which included such notables as the design of a new icon “Great for You” to encourage consumers to identify “healthy food options.”

The company also touted some numbers such as the claim that it had kept “80.9 percent of all waste generated by our U.S. operations out of landfills. This has the potential to prevent 11.8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.”

Not everyone is convinced that the numbers add up. Food & Water Watch and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) have issued a new report titled Top 10 Ways Walmart Fails on Sustainability.

“No amount of greenwash can conceal the fact that Walmart perpetuates an industrialized food system that diminishes our natural resources, causes excessive pollution, and forces smaller farmers and companies to get big or get out of business,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

The two groups note that barely one percent of Walmart’s Chinese suppliers have actually implemented waste reduction programs; that most of its products are so shoddy that they actually increase waste; that the company only sources four percent of its energy from renewable sources (other retailers like Whole Foods are already at 100 percent) and in fact the company’s energy use has increased greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent since 2005.

The activists contend that the company has added 1,100 new stores since 2005, sometimes paving over land with endangered species. The company’s “organic” milk comes from cows are housed in factory farms and fed grain (as opposed to grass)

“Once again, Walmart is using sustainability as a marketing tool to improve its public image and propel its growth,” said Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher at ILSR.

Pratap Chatterjee is the author of two books about the war on terror: Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War and Iraq, Inc. (Seven Stories Press, 2004). He is the executive director of CorpWatch and serves on the board of both Amnesty USA and the Corporate Europe Observatory.