Wal-Mart: Going Green or Greenwashing?
As of 2005 Wal-Mart has publicly announced goals to make the mega store policies more environmentally friendly. They pledged to have all stores running off of 100 percent renewable energy, create zero waste and to make more environmentally friendly products. in 2007 Wal-Mart released their “sustainability 360″ storewide policies. While it appears as though Wal-Mart is turning a new leaf, there are still reports concerning their lack of eco-consciousness.
Wal-Mart’s environmental goals center around reducing waste, environmentally friendly packaging, offering environmentally friendly products, running stores off of renewable energy and generally becoming more energy efficient. Currently, there are 20 US Wal-Mart stores in California and Hawaii that run predominantly off of solar power with another 20-30 planned for 2010 in Arizona and California. These thin-film solar panels are expected to provide 20-30 percent of the store’s power needs (roughly 22.5 kWh) and will be designed, installed, maintained and owned by SolarCity. Wal-Mart is using both copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and cadmium telluride thin film as it uses less raw materials than traditional panels, making less of an environmental impact. Wal-Mart is also hoping that other large retail stores will follow their lead and adopt these panels for on-site commercial use [Source: Treehugger]. Of course, Wal-Mart is diversifying their renewable energy sources and recently added wind power to their portfolio in 2009. In agreement to a four year power purchase agreement with Duke Energy in Texas, Wal-Mart has currently purchased 226 million kilowatt-hours of wind energy. As of 2010, approximiately 350 stores in Texas use wind-generated electricity [Source: Mother Nature Network]. Wal-Mart has also begun wind initiatives in Massachussetts and other countries like China and Japan. The company has also begun investing in fuel cells created by Bloom Energy. These fuel cells harness both air and fuel (natural gas, ethanol, biofuels). The oxygen ions react with the fuel. This process creates 60 percent less emission than a normal coal-fired plant. The fuel cells were used in two locations in California and were so successful that Wal-Mart is planning to add these boxes to ten more California facilities within the next year [Source: USA Today].
More important than running their stores off of renewable energy is reducing carbon emissions and overall waste. The 2005 environmental agreement forced Wal-Mart to make their fleet of delivery vehicles more fuel-efficient, and the company reports that it achieved a 38 percent increase in efficiency by:
- installing fuel-saving technologies
- loading trucks more efficiently
- improving its routing system to eliminate empty miles traveled.
Wal-Mart has announced that they will eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain by the end of 2015, a tall order for a store located in 70 different countries and suppliers around the world [Source: Mother Nature Network]. These suppliers, must also comply with Wal-Mart’s sustainable policies and energy efficiency standards such as:
- Require factories around the world to certify compliance with laws and regulations where they operate as well as rigorous social and environmental standards by 2011.
- Partner with suppliers to improve energy efficiency and use fewer natural resources by 2012.
- Higher standards of product safety and quality — Wal-Mart aims to drive returns on defective merchandise virtually out of existence by 2012.
- All direct import suppliers plus all suppliers of private label and non-branded products must provide the name and location of every factory used to make the products. The company will also have all suppliers it buys from directly to source 95 percent of their production from factories that receive the highest ratings on environmental and social practices by 2012 [Source: CSR Wire]
Besides emissions, Wal-Mart has also taken a zero-waste stance and have started implementing various programs. In 2008-2009 Wal-Mart successfully redirected more than 57 percent of the waste from its stores and Sam’s Club facilities, citing the “sandwich baling process” as the leading reason. This process compresses recyclable items between layers of cardboard, allowing Wal-Mart to over 200 million metric tons of waste. Wal-Mart has also gone the extra step in making sure items that do end up in landfills do no contain harmful chemicals such as PVC packaging, pesticides, BPA plastics and cleaning toxins [Source: Mint].
While Wal-Mart’s goals are admirable, however there is still little credibility, updated disclosures on completion of goals and no benchmarks against baseline figures. Many of the arguments center around the actual Wal-Mart model. Many of these stores run 24 hours a day, using up much more energy than the majority of other retail stores. The large parking lots are major contributors to “no point source” water pollution (US leading cause of water pollution) and it has been noted that the stores draw around 850 customers in cars per hour. Most of these customers must also drive long distances since Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs are generally on the outskirts of town for space purposes [Source: Mint]. There has even been reports against Wal-Mart in relation to the handling and disposal of hazardous materials. Earlier in 2010, Wal-Mart was forced to pay $27.6 million to the government of California for violating these environmental laws. The incident began four years ago when a health inspector noted a Wal-Mart employee pouring bleach down a drain [Source: LA Times].
Overall, Wal-Mart’s steps to becoming more sustainable are admirable, the company has a long way to go to proving their committment to the environment. Despite arguments against the company, these changes are beginning to force other large retail stores to also change their environmental policies.