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Stacy Mitchell's Posts


Walmart is the last place Obama should be making a clean energy speech

Walmart store
Mike Mozart

Today President Obama is speaking about clean energy and energy efficiency at a Walmart in Mountain View, Calif. Of all the places he might give a big speech on energy, a Walmart supercenter is a baffling and disconcerting choice. Walmart — despite its skill in attracting publicity like this — is a laggard on renewable energy and one of the biggest and fastest-growing climate polluters on the planet. While many competing retailers are already running on 100 percent renewable power, Walmart's wind and solar projects supply just 3 percent of its U.S. electricity — and that's down from 4 percent two …


A Trojan carrot

Walmart’s latest organic scheme is just part of its plot to take over our food system

grocery aisle

Walmart recently announced that it would stock a selection of lower-cost organic packaged foods. A storm of positive press followed, including two U.S. News columns (here and here) by David Brodwin of the American Sustainable Business Council, who argued that, despite Walmart's many sins, it was doing good in this case by legitimatizing and mainstreaming sustainable products in the eyes of consumers, investors, the media, and other companies.

I'm a big fan of David's work, and of ASBC, but I think he's got this one backward. The story that Walmart created with its announcement was not: Wow, organics have changed. They've gone mainstream. (That's not really news, after all.) Instead, the story was: Wow, Walmart has changed. It's gone organic. In other words, Walmart is not legitimizing organic foods so much as using organic foods to legitimize its own business model.

To me, the pivotal question that ought to frame any discussion about Walmart's role in our food system is: Will people and the planet be better off if Walmart grows to control 50 percent of the U.S. grocery market?


EDF sells green cred to Walmart for the low, low price of $66 million


Aside from Walmart itself, there is no louder and more enthusiastic cheerleader for the retail giant's sustainability campaign than Environmental Defense Fund. A quick perusal of the news over the last few weeks finds EDF issuing a press release about Walmart's green leadership, praising its environmental boldness in a Fortune interview, backing its solar claims in a Fast Company article, and headlining a live chat about Walmart hosted by The Guardian.

EDF, one of the nation's largest and best-known environmental organizations, is Walmart's right-hand man in the green game. It turns out, unlike most Walmart jobs, that's a pretty lucrative gig to have.

Since 2005, EDF has received $66 million from the Walton Family Foundation. The Waltons are the children and grandchildren of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The crucial thing to know about the family -- in addition to their mind-boggling wealth, estimated at $145 billion — is that they control Walmart. They not only have several seats on the company's board, including the chair. They own over half of Walmart's stock.

So, the Waltons both run Walmart and finance EDF. Their donations to EDF started in 2004, shortly before Walmart launched its sustainability campaign. For the Waltons, the donations are a bargain, giving Walmart's environmental announcements an instant veneer of green credibility.


Here’s one smart way to fight big-box stores

Cape Cod lighthouse
A big-box store wouldn't fit so well right here.

This month, citizens and planning officials in Cape Cod, Mass., will get a chance to do what almost no one else in the U.S. is allowed to do when deciding whether to approve or reject a big-box retail development: weigh the likely impacts on the region's economy.

Thousands of proposals to build big-box stores and shopping centers will be submitted to cities and towns this year. (Walmart alone is pushing to open 220 new stores by January.) In almost every case, local planning policies will limit any review of these projects to conventional zoning issues, like how much traffic the store will generate and whether the site has sufficient landscaping.

Questions about the economic impacts of these projects will be off the table. Residents who want to talk about how a new shopping center will affect the viability of Main Street business districts, wage rates for local workers, or even the cost of public services will be told that those issues cannot be considered as part of the planning board's deliberations.

This narrow approach to land-use policy strips communities of an important tool for shaping their own economic future, constraining the reach of extractive corporations, and moving toward less carbon-intensive economic systems and shopping patterns.

One exception to this common state of affairs is Cape Cod, a peninsula home to about 217,000 people.

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics


Locally owned businesses can help communities thrive — and survive climate change

small stores on Main Street
Small businesses offer big benefits.

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.


Bangladesh fire shows why we can’t trust Walmart to green its supply chain

Walmart has staked the lion's share of its sustainability program on greening its supply chain. Instead of changing its own business practices — selling flimsy, landfill-bound products and building sprawling stores that can only be reached by car, for example — Walmart has said that it can make more headway on greenhouse gas emissions by pushing its suppliers around the world to reduce their energy and resource use.

Tazreen factory
Reuters / Andrew Biraj
The Tazreen factory where workers made clothes for Walmart until a tragic fire on Nov. 24.

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 Nation published 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.

Over the last few years, even as Walmart has been touting its efforts to cut waste and improve energy efficiency at Chinese factories, it has also been rapidly shifting apparel production to Bangladesh. Since 2006, Bangladesh has grown from the sixth largest apparel exporter in the world to the second, after China. What's driving this shift? Wages and production costs in China are rising, while Bangladesh remains dirt cheap. Its mostly female garment workers earn as little as $37 a month and, with the country's lax environmental and safety standards, overhead costs are remarkably low.

Most Bangladeshi garment factories lack even rudimentary fire safety features. When workers on the upper floors of the Tazreen factory tried to flee, they found locked exits, blocked stairwells, and limited fire-fighting equipment. They are not the first to die trapped inside a blazing factory. More than 600 of the country's garment workers have perished in fires since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.


Walmart heirs quietly fund Walmart’s environmental allies

The WaltonsOops -- wrong Walton family.

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.


The Walmart de Mexico scandal: Here’s a punishment that befits the crime

One of the more than 2,000 Walmarts in Mexico. (Photo by Christopher Porter)

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.


Four ways enviros can keep Walmart in the hot seat

Hot-looking chair

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.


Eaters, beware: Walmart is taking over our food system

Yes it's cheap but ... (Photo by Walmart Stores.)

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.