It's Walmart's birthday week. Over 50 years, the retailer has grown into the world's largest private employer with over 2.1 million employees. Every week, more Americans shop at Walmart than turned out to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Walmart has become a dominant economic force, both domestically and internationally.
As part of its legacy, Walmart has crushed local businesses, driven wages down to historic lows, and significantly contributed to the destruction of the U.S. manufacturing sector. And, with a robust sustainability PR campaign, Walmart engages in an impressive level of green-washing: making big promises for publicity and image purposes and not only failing to deliver on those promises but refusing to change its business model, which in and of itself is fundamentally unsustainable.
In a recent interview, Walmart's VP of Sustainability stated that Walmart had three main goals: to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to have products that sustain people and the environment. Given the sheer size of Walmart's operation, being powered by 100 percent renewable energy and creating zero waste would have a substantial impact. For one, the demand it would create for renewable energy would be a big boost to renewables and help provide the market demand necessary for further investment. And, an operation the size of Walmart moving to zero waste would not only decrease the amount that goes into landfills, it would create demand for more waste alternatives, including recycling, in areas that currently do not have these facilities. In short, the size of Walmart means that everything it does creates a ripple effect, particularly in small communities.
But, the company is falling far short of meeting these goals. A recent report highlights just how little Walmart has done. For instance, at its current pace, Walmart will need roughly 300 years to reach its renewable energy goal. As of 2011, only two percent of its electricity was from its highly touted wind and solar projects. While the company has increased its recycling operations, it also has a practice of abandoning existing stores and building new ones, which leads to acres of abandoned and wasted land.
Beyond whether or not it is making progress on these targets, Walmart cannot become a sustainable company because its business model is fundamentally flawed. The relentless drive for lower prices creates high levels of overconsumption and waste. By driving prices lower, it encourages shoppers to purchase more and more products, many of which are poorly made and last just a short while, which then requires another round of purchasing.
Walmart virtually mandates that suppliers use the cheapest processes possible to supply goods at low prices. Yet environmentally sound practices cost money. It's much cheaper to just dump waste water into an open channel than to treat it before it is released. No amount of recycling can make up for all the waste and environmental destruction Walmart creates through its business model.
It's true that Walmart is not alone in any of these practices. Indeed, the very nature of American capitalism requires that the top priority is profit maximization, whatever the cost to the environment or to wages. But the sheer size of Walmart and the impact that it could have if it did the right thing makes them unique. And, given how much they promote their sustainability practices, it is right to hold them to the promises they make. If they are going to get credit and accolades for promoting sustainability, then they should be sustainable.
So, Happy Birthday, Walmart. It'd be great if you didn't completely destroy our planet by your 100th birthday.