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
“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?
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.
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.