In May, Walmart was hit with $110 million in environmental fines after pleading guilty to improperly dumping pesticides, fertilizer and other hazardous materials into public sewers and landfills. The Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section said that it was the second-largest environmental criminal penalty ever imposed in U.S. history, after the $4 billion BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the result of a plea agreement that ended a nearly decade-old investigation involving more than 20 prosecutors and 32 environmental groups.
Walmart “put the public and the environment at risk and gained an unfair economic advantage over other companies,” Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a prepared statement.
This event clashes with the firm’s relentless, ad-heavy PR campaign about its sustainability initiative. Walmart has been quite successful in the mainstream media and with too many environmentalists. Boulder’s online countercultural magazine Elephant Journal ran a piece asking if the city should “welcome a reformed Walmart into its Green-minded community.”
Last year, the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance issued a report called “Walmart’s Greenwash,” by Stacy Mitchell. She says that sustainability has been a growth strategy. In 2005, Walmart had gained a reputation for mistreating workers and suppliers. Then-CEO Lee Scott told The New York Times that improving labor conditions would cost too much. “Going green was a better option for repairing the company’s image,” Mitchell notes. “It offered ways to cut costs and, rather than undermining Walmart’s control (which would happen if workers had some say), sustainability could actually augment its power over suppliers. Environmentalism also had strong appeal among urban liberals in the Northeast and West Coast — the very markets Walmart needed to penetrate in order to keep its U.S. growth going.”
By 2010, the number of Americans with an unfavorable view of Walmart had fallen by nearly half, from a peak of 38 percent in 2005 to 20 percent.
The findings of the ILSR report indicate that the change in public perception wasn’t based on reality. Here are some of the findings:
• Walmart’s greenhouse gas emissions are increasing rapidly. The company currently derives just 4 percent of its U.S. electricity from its wind and solar projects. At its current rate of adoption, Walmart will need roughly 300 years to reach its goal of 100 percent renewable energy. Meanwhile, other U.S. retailers are doing much better. There are some, like Kohl’s and Staples, which get all of their electricity from renewable sources.
• Walmart has made little progress toward its goal of developing a sustainability index to rate consumer products.
• Walmart hasn’t dealt with the habitat and climate impacts of its land development practices. The retailer continues to build sprawling stores on undeveloped land, often just a few miles from older, vacated Walmart stores. Mitchell found 152 abandoned Walmart stores in the U.S. listed as available for lease or sale on the company’s realty website.
• Walmart’s continuous drive for lower prices has driven suppliers to create lower-quality goods that must be replaced more frequently. For example, clothing has become much less durable and sturdy. Because clothes are so shoddily made today, we buy far more of them. The average consumer back in the mid-1990s bought 28 items per year. Compare that with the 59 items we buy today, throwing away 83 pounds of it annually, four times as much as we did in 1980.
• Walmart and the Walton family finance anti-environment politicians, including some of the most powerful climate-change deniers in Congress.
Last year, Food and Water Watch released a report entitled, “Why Walmart Can’t Fix the Food System.” Walmart has become the largest food retailer in the U.S. One out of every three dollars spent on groceries in the U.S. goes to Walmart. The firm has driven consolidation and industrialization of the food system.
The report notes that “Walmart is the largest purchaser of American agricultural products, and as such it has considerable influence over which foods are available to the public, the methods in which these foods are produced and the prices paid to producers.”
Now Walmart is coming to Boulder with its private-label, factory-farm-produced organic milk and genetically engineered (GE) Monsanto sweet corn.
At what point will we say no?
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.