The mother ship.

Photo: Wal-Mart.

It was easy for Wal-Mart’s critics to laugh this past spring when CEO Lee Scott proudly announced that he drove a Lexus hybrid. For Scott to expect praise for his consumer choices given the abysmal record of his massive company — which has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act while contributing to sprawl, air pollution, and a host of other serious problems — seemed to insult public intelligence. It also seemed a strange maneuver for a man heading a company known for shunning environmental concerns. Indeed, in Robert Greenwald’s new film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, one veteran activist says she has never encountered a company as unresponsive as Wal-Mart.

But since then, Scott’s green inclinations seem to have grown. In late October, he unveiled plans to hold Wal-Mart’s suppliers to higher environmental standards and to begin selling clothing made from organic cotton. Just four days later, in a speech to employees, he outlined his goals for being a “good steward” to the environment. Scott plans to increase fuel efficiency in the company’s truck fleet — one of the largest in the world — by 25 percent over the next three years, and to double fuel efficiency over the next decade from 6.5 to 13 miles per gallon. He promised to cut energy use at new stores by 30 percent and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at the more than 5,000 existing stores, warehouse clubs, and distribution centers by 20 percent over the next eight years. He also said the company would offer cheaper health insurance to its employees, and called upon the government to raise the minimum wage.

How meaningful are Scott’s plans? Are they simply attempts to divert attention from concerns about Wal-Mart’s notoriously shoddy treatment of its workers? The mixed reaction from progressive activists reveals no easy answers.

Lee Scott.

Photo: Wal-Mart.

Baby Steps

The new proposals are, by Scott’s own admission, a response to increasing public pressure on both social and environmental issues. Reactions from activists have varied, reflecting divergent analyses of the company and differing opinions of how best to approach it. Without exception, they fault the plan for vagueness, and for including no intention of public reporting. But some advocates are cautiously hopeful.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club — which has, as he puts it, “frequently crossed swords” with the company in community battles — said Scott’s speech was “environmentally important and substantive, but it did not address some of the environmental problems with their business model.”

Despite concerns about the company’s use of “cheap land” and encouragement of sprawl, some critics still see Wal-Mart’s size and market power as a potential plus. “Wal-Mart ought to be using its competitive advantage to raise standards,” Pope says, and others agree. “Wal-Mart is the biggest company in the world,” says Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships for Environmental Defense, which has been in talks with Wal-Mart about these issues. “I’d like to see them flex their purchasing muscle. If you can make a change in Wal-Mart, even if it’s a small change, it’s really a big change, especially if it affects the supply chain.” (Wal-Mart has thousands of suppliers, and many manufacturers say its dominance is so complete that it would be impossible to stay afloat without doing business with the company.)

From the point of view of Pope, Ruta, and others, the proper response to Wal-Mart’s proposals is to see that the company actually lives up to them. Some will do that by continuing to fight community battles or assisting with public education efforts, while others will work more closely with Wal-Mart, hoping to influence company officials. Says Pope, “We have to acknowledge [Scott's plan]. We have been very careful not to call it green-scamming. It’s more like, when your kid is making progress going to bed, you acknowledge the progress, but you still have to make sure they get all the way to bed.”

Pope is also on the board of Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition that began with seed money from the Service Employees International Union. He says he sees connections between Wal-Mart’s abuse of the environment and of its workforce: both reflect the company’s fanatical obsession with keeping costs low. This connection is often made by activists at the community level, where environmental groups tend to work closely with labor and other social-justice groups, but such alliances have been slower to emerge among national groups. However, Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch says the contingents have been talking to each other far more this year, as a result of national visibility and momentum on Wal-Mart-related issues.

Down With Love

Many environmental leaders acknowledge that they have put less pressure on the company than social-justice activists have. And perhaps the most intriguing fallout from Scott’s announcement is its dismissal by labor advocates, who have managed to keep Wal-Mart’s offenses against workers in the news on an almost-daily basis. Rather than claiming credit for the initiatives and praising Wal-Mart for taking action on a matter of pressing public interest, Chris Kofinis of Wake Up Wal-Mart — a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers — calls the new plan a “publicity stunt.”

Green becomes you.

Photo: Wal-Mart.

To Sefl, dismissing the environmental overtures is politically “short-sighted. Just to say it is bad, bad, without consulting our environmental friends would make us sound like blowhards.”

Plenty of environmentalists also consider Scott’s announcement a sham, however, and find it difficult to imagine a truly green Wal-Mart. Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who is working on a book on big-box stores, views Wal-Mart’s size not as an opportunity, but as a critical part of the problem. To her, the company’s new initiatives “miss the bigger picture. What is truly sustainable is local sourcing. Of course we will always have trade, but sourcing locally cuts down dramatically on fuel and energy use.” She says local businesses are more politically accountable to communities and more invested in them; when you live and work among people, you may be less likely to dump toxins in their water.

And for Wal-Mart to promise more fuel efficiency while it continues to expand its operations, Mitchell says, “is like the person who buys a car that is 25 percent more fuel efficient, then drives it twice as much, and expects us to applaud.” Mitchell thinks environmentalists should oppose Wal-Mart’s growth. After all, the more stores Wal-Mart builds, “the more we have to drive — that is the biggest piece of the company’s environmental impact,” she says. “The best thing for the environment would be if Wal-Mart stopped building stores.” The very week of Scott’s speech on the environment, the company announced plans to add more than 60 million square feet of retail space.

Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, is equally skeptical of Scott’s newfound environmentalism. “It is a distraction, because the real environmental impact comes from what Wal-Mart sells: cheap commodities that are designed to wear out quickly,” she says.

Indeed, Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Patrick Jackman, who has extensively studied Wal-Mart’s prices, believes much of the savings consumers derive by shopping there may be offset by the poor quality of the goods. This disposability, Rogers points out, has a “double impact” on the environment: more raw materials must be extracted to replace the defunct products, while at the same time the discarded items are sent to polluting landfills.

Environmentalists’ disagreements on Wal-Mart offer a window on progressive confusion about the retailer: Is Wal-Mart a purely rotten model, or merely missing opportunities to be a force for positive change? Asked about the larger concerns that Mitchell and Rogers raise — worries that can’t be easily allayed by fuel-efficient trucks or organic cotton T-shirts — Ruta is philosophical. “The fact is, Wal-Mart exists,” she says. “We might as well try and make it better.”