Cities where small, locally owned businesses account for a relatively large share of the economy have stronger social networks, more engaged citizens, and better success solving problems, according to several recently published studies.
And in the face of climate change, those are just the sort of traits that communities most need if they are to survive massive storms, adapt to changing conditions, find new ways of living more lightly on the planet, and, most important, nurture a vigorous citizenship that can drive major changes in policy.
But in the aftermath of the horrific fire that took the lives of 112 workers at the Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh, it has become clear that Walmart has no credibility with regard to its supply chain. Its actions in the months leading up to the fire, and its obfuscations in the weeks since, demonstrate that Walmart cannot be trusted to put principles above greed, even when it explicitly states that it will do so, nor even to tell the truth about which factories are producing its goods.
In the wake of the Nov. 24 fire, Walmart at first said that it could not confirm that it had ever sourced apparel from the Tazreen factory, even though a document on the website of the factory's parent company showed that Walmart had audited the factory in May 2011 and had found "higher-risk violations."
Two days later, when The Nationpublished photos of Walmart-branded clothing in the charred ruins of the factory, Walmart admitted that the factory produced goods for its shelves, but said that it had removed the facility from its approved factory list at some point prior to the fire. Walmart claimed that a rogue supplier had continued filling orders there in violation of the retailer's ban.
If Walmart did indeed suspend the factory — it has not responded to journalists' questions about exactly when and why it did so — then it appears the company failed to inform its suppliers of the decision. According to The New York Times, the Tazreen factory was running orders for at least two Walmart suppliers at the time of the fire and, as recently as mid-September, five Walmart suppliers were using the factory.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a story on the front page of the business section under the headline "Unexpected Ally Helps Walmart Cut Waste." The retailer's accomplice, readers of the article learned, is the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the largest and most influential environmental groups in the country. EDF has been working closely with Walmart on its sustainability efforts since 2005, and has even opened an office in Bentonville, Ark., where Walmart is headquartered.
The Times noted that EDF "does not accept contributions from Walmart or other corporations it works with." EDF itself often mentions this when the subject of Walmart comes up, making note of it on its website, as well as in blog posts and other communications about its work with the company.
But, while it's true that Walmart does not fund EDF (either directly or through its internal, company-run foundation), the environmental group does receive an awful lot of money from the Walton Family Foundation. Since 2004, the foundation has given EDF more than $53 million. Last year, the foundation's $13.7 million grant to the group amounted to about 15 percent of EDF's budget. After readers brought this to the attention of The Times, the newspaper amended its story and ran a correction noting the Walton foundation's grants to EDF.
Walmart spent much of last week burnishing its green image and touting its progress "toward becoming a more sustainable, responsible company." All the while, those at the very top of the company, including CEO Mike Duke, knew that The New York Times was about to publish an explosive story that would lay to waste the notion that Walmart cares about anything other than its own growth.
The Times story presents credible evidence that Walmart's Mexican subsidiary spent millions of dollars bribing local officials in order to speed up permits for new stores, get "zoning maps changed," and make "environmental objections vanish." When top executives, including Duke, learned of the bribes in 2005, they declined to notify U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, shut down Walmart's own internal investigation, and continued to lavish promotions on the alleged ringleader, Eduardo Castro-Wright, who currently serves as Walmart's vice chair.
In the days since the Times story broke, attention has turned to the potential punishment Walmart might face. A criminal investigation is underway at the U.S. Department of Justice, which, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, could pursue prosecutions that might lead to substantial fines and even jail time for Duke and others implicated. The Mexican government, meanwhile, has initiated its own inquiry.
If justice is to be served in this case, though, Walmart must not only face fines and prison terms, but also be forced to sell off a sizeable number of its ill-gotten Mexican stores. By bribing officials, Walmart was able to crush its competitors, opening new stores so fast they had no time to react. In just a few years, Walmart came out of nowhere to dominate the Mexican economy.
But, as any athlete or other competitor knows, if you're caught cheating your way to a win, then you most certainly do not get to keep the prize.
This post concludes the "Walmart's Greenwash" series. To check out the rest of the series, follow the links at right, or start with the introduction.
Walmart's sustainability campaign is not your typical corporate greenwash. It is more complex and clever than that. It has enough substance mixed in with the spin to draw you in. It's easy to get swept up in the big numbers Walmart can roll out -- like the 30 tons of plastic hangers it recycles every month -- and to be charmed by the very fact of this giant company, with its hard-nosed corporate culture, using a word like "sustainability."
More than a few environmentalists have been won over. With their endorsements and the flood of positive press that seems to follow each of Walmart's green announcements, the company has managed to turn around flagging poll numbers, shift its labor practices out of the limelight, and, most crucially, crank up its expansion machine.
The environmental consequences of Walmart's ongoing growth far outweigh the modest reductions in resource use that the company has made.
Aubretia Edick has worked at a Walmart store in upstate New York for 11 years, but she won't buy fresh food there. Bagged salads, she claims, are often past their sell-by dates and, in the summer, fruit is sometimes kept on shelves until it rots. "They say, 'We'll take care of it,' but they don't. As a cashier, you hear a lot of people complain," she said.
Edick blames the problems on the store's chronic understaffing and Walmart's lack of respect for the skilled labor needed to handle the nation's food supply. At her store, a former maintenance person was made produce manager. He's often diverted to other tasks. "If the toilets get backed up, they call him," she said.
Tracie McMillan, who did a stint working in the produce section of a Walmart store while researching her forthcoming book, The American Way of Eating, reports much the same. "They put a 20-year-old from electronics in charge of the produce department. He didn't know anything about food," she said. "We had a leak in the cooler that didn't get fixed for a month and all this moldy food was going out on the floor." Walmart doesn't accept the idea that "a supermarket takes any skill to run," she said. "They treated the produce like any other kind of merchandise."
That's plenty to give a shopper pause, but it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons to be concerned about Walmart's explosive expansion into the grocery sector.
In 2006, Walmart made headlines when its vice president for corporate strategy and sustainability, Andrew Ruben, told a congressional committee that the company "would accept a well-designed mandatory cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases." Other major U.S. companies had spoken favorably of cap-and-trade, but Walmart made a bigger splash. Not only was it America's second-largest corporation; it also had deep roots in the country's coal-burning heartland.
But even as Ruben was delivering his testimony, Walmart's political action committee (PAC) was funneling a river of campaign cash into the coffers of lawmakers who would ensure that the U.S. did absolutely nothing to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. During the 2007-2008 election cycle, 80 percent of Senate campaign contributions that came from Walmart's PAC and large donors employed by the company went to senators who helped block the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill, according to data on political giving published by the Center for Responsive Politics. (When the bill arrived on the floor in 2008, it came up 12 votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.)
My, that's a big abandoned parking lot you have.Photo: Rob StinnettEarlier this year, the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance tried but failed to block a permit for a new Walmart supercenter in the small coastal town of Toms River. The development, now moving forward, will destroy habitat for the threatened northern pine snake. What's especially frustrating about the project, local environmentalists say, is that Walmart already has a store in Toms River. It's just a mile down the road and will be shuttered when the new supercenter opens.
The Toms River site is one of several environmentally sensitive areas Walmart aims to pave over in the coming months. Many follow a similar pattern. In Copley, Ohio, Walmart wants to develop 40 acres of fields and wetlands, and then close another store a mile away. In Davie, Fla., the chain is seeking permission to destroy 17 acres of wetlands to build in a location that's just a 15-minute drive from six other Walmart stores.
Even as Walmart has been hyping its supposed environmental epiphany, it has continued to unroll vast, low-rise supercenters at breakneck speed. Since launching its sustainability campaign in 2005, Walmart has expanded the amount of store space it operates in the U.S. by 32 percent. It's added more than 1,100 new supercenters, almost all built on land that hadn't been developed before Walmart showed up. The chain now has 698 million square feet of store space in the U.S., up from 530 million in 2005, plus another 287 million around the globe. Its U.S. stores and parking lots cover roughly 60,000 acres.
It looks like Walmart's green-ratings plan has been shelved.Photo: WalmartIn 2009, Walmart created a stir when it announced that it would develop a Sustainability Index to assess the environmental impacts of every item on its shelves and provide an easy rating system to help shoppers make greener choices. CEO Mike Duke described [PDF] the index as "a simple tool that informs consumers about the sustainability of products" and helps them "consume in a more sustainable way."This, in turn, would induce Walmart's 100,000 suppliers to shrink their footprints.
The company set a five-year timetable. Many commentators gushed. The New York Times found the news so momentous that it dedicated an editorial to it, noting, "Given Wal-Mart's huge purchasing power, if it is done right it could promote both much-needed transparency and more environmentally sensitive practices."
More than two years on, this ambitious project doesn't have much to show for itself. A consumer label "is really far off and maybe not a reality," according to Elizabeth Sturcken, a managing director at Environmental Defense Fund, which has partnered with Walmart on its sustainability initiatives. "This information is really complex. Getting it reduced into a simple label for consumers is very challenging."
Still, Sturcken thinks the project could produce valuable information for Walmart and manufacturers, and drive product improvements behind the scenes. "I think getting it into a system that product buyers and suppliers could use is much more attainable," she said.
Walmart is moving like a tortoise toward its clean-energy goal.Context is critical to understanding Walmart's sustainability initiatives and their impact on the retailer's overall environmental footprint. But context has been sorely absent in the news media's coverage of Walmart's green efforts. Even within the environmental community, conversations about Walmart tend to miss the big picture.
Walmart's renewable-energy activities provide a perfect example. Six years ago, the company announced that it was setting a goal of being "supplied by 100 percent renewable energy." Succinct, powerfully stated goals are a signature of Walmart's sustainability campaign -- in part, it seems, because journalists often repeat these goals verbatim, so they function like stealth marketing slogans that infiltrate media coverage. Walmart's renewable-energy goal has been especially effective on this front, appearing in thousands of newspaper articles and countless blog posts. Many of these stories use the goal as a jumping-off point to highlight the retailer's renewable-energy projects, which include putting solar panels on 130 stores in California and buying 180 million kilowatt-hours of wind power in Texas annually. These stories create the overall impression that Walmart is making great progress on renewable energy.
But what if, rather than repeating Walmart's stated goal of 100 percent renewable power, these news stories had instead reported that the company currently derives less than 2 percent of its electricity from its solar projects and wind-power purchases?