Andreas Späth

Wal-Mart: a Jolly Green Giant?

2010-11-17 07:46

Andreas Späth

With Wal-Mart’s bid to buy a stake in Massmart (Game, Makro, Builders Warehouse, etc.), the world’s biggest corporation is poised to enter the South African market.

In recent years, the giant retailer with over 2 million employees worldwide, more than 170 million customers per week and an annual revenue exceeding $400bn has made a concerted effort to become more eco-friendly.

But how green is the company really, and should South African environmentalists welcome its arrival on our shores?

In 2005, former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott proposed that the company should power all of its operations using only renewable energy, create zero waste and deal only in sustainable products. While these lofty goals are still far from being realised, the corporation has made significant strides in reducing its overall environmental footprint.

Wal-Mart has been promoting more energy efficient products, organic goods and sustainably-harvested seafood. They have improved the energy efficiency of their stores, some of which derive part of their electricity needs from solar and wind power.

The company has set itself the goal of reducing the plastic waste generated at its outlets by 200 million pounds globally by 2013 and has significantly improved the fuel efficiency of its fleet of trucks. In February, Wal-Mart announced plans to lower the carbon footprint of its products and supply chain by 20 million tonnes of CO2 by 2015.

Wal-Mart is also in the process of developing a Sustainability Index which, once completed, will assist customers in assessing the sustainability of products sold at its outlets.

I won’t deny that these are some significant achievements and commitments. In the US a number of environmental organisations, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the World Wide Fund for Nature, have become outright Wal-Mart fans, pointing out that the US multinational can effectively leverage its buying power to force its 100 000 suppliers, especially the 30 000 in China, to adopt more eco-friendly policies. According to the EDF’s Elizabeth Sturcken, “this beast could be a powerful force for good on the planet”.

Not green enough!

So do all of its green promises really make Wal-Mart a sustainable company? Besides its atrocious history of union-busting, low wages, poor health care for employees and use of sweatshop labour, Wal-Mart’s environmental track-record is patchy at best.

The company has faced millions of dollars in fines for violations of water and air pollution laws in several US states. The gargantuan parking lots required for Wal-Mart stores are a significant source of water pollution with rain water carrying petrol and other toxins into streams and groundwater.

US environmental groups have highlighted the fact that the retailer has a record of financial campaign support for political candidates who routinely vote against environmental legislation.

But the biggest problem with Wal-Mart goes much deeper than that, all the way to the company’s intrinsically unsustainable business model premised on continuous worldwide growth and creating supply chains that are thousands of kilometres long. Critics point out that the company’s sustainability measures and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be nullified by its need for perpetual expansion.

Wal-Mart is notorious for destroying local economies and small neighbourhood businesses that are easily accessible by foot or public transport – exactly the sort of economies that are ecologically sensible and resilient in the face of oil depletion – and replacing them with enormous box stores that require customers to travel by private car.

US Studies show that this leads to drastic increases in shopping-related driving distances. The result: the CO2 emissions from customers driving to Wal-Mart outlets are larger than the emissions by all of its operations put together.

Being an environmentalist and supporting Wal-Mart for becoming greener is a bit like being a pacifist and supporting the US Army for endeavouring to make its imperialist wars a bit less bloody. Just because something is greener than it was before doesn’t in itself make it truly sustainable in the long run.

Wal-Mart is a chief proponent of a global system of anti-ecological commerce and conspicuous consumption which cares primarily about financial bottom lines and causes more environmental and social harm than good. I for one would be happy if the Wal-Mart-Massmart deal failed to materialise.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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