Saturday, June 6, 2009

Wal-Mart Going Green: A Journal

The following is a short paper I was required to write for my summer course entitled "Wal-Mart: A Study in Contemporary Capitalism". I thought I would share it with you, perhaps to spark interest in this matter, or to inform you if you're already aware. Do keep in mind that this article assumes a measure of knowledge of what's going on, and that it refers to two readings that are available online.

Journal: It’s Not Easy Being Green

The “greening” of Wal-Mart class and ensuing discussion left few of us indifferent. The questions put forward by the presentation group resonated with what had already occurred to me: can Wal-Mart really be green? Is the retail giant doing this to better its image and deflect our attention away from current issues? Could Wal-Mart become the new face of the green movement? I vigorously maintained that Wal-Mart could not be green and maintain its low price supremacy, since everything about it, from its business model to the ideology touted by its admirers, defies the concept both in idea and in practice. Since then, however, I have had to resign myself to the likelihood that the big box will be here for many years to come—short of a monumental shift in North American consumer values—which makes my point moot. Since Wal-Mart isn’t going to blink out of existence, how far up the green ladder can it actually go?

To find out, I enlisted the help of Wal-Mart Watch, a group whose name (and criticisms) figured prominently in the required reading “Wal-Mart’s Ethical Sourcing – Green does not Mean Ethical”. I focused on the purely environmental aspect of Wal-Mart’s ambitions; I felt that tackling “ethical” and “green” at once would be beyond the scope of this journal. We can certainly agree that the many lawsuits pending against the corporation reveal that it is severely lacking in the ethical category, but is its current eco-campaign simple greenwashing? As we have seen, the previous “Buy USA” phase was a dismal failure, with “Made in China” tags on the very merchandise that was advertised as being domestic—doing little to earn the blind trust of this student. Of course, the company does have much to gain from going green, which lends much weight to its genuine implementation. Fewer trucks in its fleet means fewer names on the payroll. Electricity saved means smaller energy bills. All this is good news for Wal-Mart, but is the effect on the environment truly just as beneficial?

According to “Is Wal-Mart Really a Green Company”, a lengthy gathering of citations from various journals, reports, and groups, the answer is “no”. A number of factors play an instrumental part in this assessment: the size of Wal-Mart stores and the energy required to run each one; the transportation of goods and consumers; and the effects of Wal-Mart property and mishandling on natural resources.

Wal-Mart’s physical design is such that it requires a large amount of space. It is often placed on the outskirts of town, creating sprawl and adding to pollution. One Wal-Mart’s parking lot can be three times the size of the building and contributes to non-point source water pollution. Multiply an 18-acre footprint by over 2,300 stores in the US alone, and the amount of space required by this big box is astounding. Not to mention that over 300 stores were abandoned in favour of building larger ones elsewhere. Customers may make fewer trips to get to their nearest Wal-Mart, but these trips are twice as long (Wal-Mart Watch report, p 1-3).

The retail behemoth isn’t short on lawsuits in this area, either. All across the United States, suits and fines have been levied against it, from claims of air and water pollution to improper oil storage. Negligence of regulations and procedures, omissions of essential building components, and inadequate record-keeping appear to be at the root of these troubles. Furthermore, Wal-Mart is also under investigation by several states for violating a number of laws, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, The Clean Water Act, and the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, designed to safeguard the public from potentially hazardous waste (Wal-Mart 2006 Annual Report, p 44; Wal-Mart Watch report, p 3).

It appears that my instincts were on to something. In essence, even if a new Wal-Mart is built up to the company’s newest green standards, the overall harm done to the environment will outweigh what savings are had by the measures. Of course, Wal-Mart should and probably will still go ahead with them—a small amount of eco-responsibility is better than none at all—but the main motivation behind it, I argue, will be what it has always been: financial gain. And, if Wal-Mart does indeed pioneer a new model of “eco-retail”, its innovations will stop where the line is drawn between the greener good... and the bottom line.

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