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Walmart’s promised green product rankings fall off the radar

Organic label on Walmart shelfIt 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.

But even that seems to be proving elusive.

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Think Walmart uses 100% clean energy? Try 2%

turtle with walmart logoWalmart 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?

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Is your stuff falling apart? Thank Walmart

Levi's jeansForever in blue jeans, babe? Not anymore.Photo: bburkyMy friend Tony's closet is as good a place as any to begin an investigation of Walmart's environmental impact. Tony has a pair of Levi's that date back to high school more than 20 years ago. They still fit him and they're still in rotation. The fabric has a smooth patina that hints at its age, but, compared to another pair of Levi's he bought only a couple of years ago, this pair actually looks far less worn. The denim is sturdier, the seams more substantial, the rivets bigger.

Tony's old pair of Levi's may well have been made in the U.S, and they likely cost more than his new pair. The new ones were manufactured abroad -- Levi's closed its last U.S. factory in 2003 -- and, though Tony didn't buy them at Walmart, their shoddy construction can be blamed at least in part on the giant retailer and the way it's reshaping manufacturing around the world.

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Walmart by the numbers: Green vs. growth

mixed colored numbersWalmart's six-year-old sustainability campaign has helped improve its public image, enabling the company to grow bigger and faster. That growth, ironically, has dramatically increased the retailer's environmental footprint, and hurt local economies and the U.S. job market along the way.

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Why is Michelle Obama’s food initiative promoting Walmart?

I winced yesterday when James Gavin, chair of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said he'd like to see Walmart double its U.S. store count. He was speaking at Michelle Obama's event announcing that several retailers will open stores in "food deserts." It was a sort of half-jokey remark, but, still, in a conversation about food in America, the suggestion that Walmart should have an even bigger role in our food system is pretty disturbing. This is a company that already captures 25 percent of grocery sales nationally and more than 50 percent in some metro areas.

It's remarkable the way Walmart has managed to maneuver itself on this issue. If you were to rank the factors that have contributed to the disappearance of neighborhood grocery stores over the last two decades, Walmart would be a pretty formidable contender for the top spot. Today it is garnering heroic headlines for saying it will bring fresh food to places that lack it.

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Grassroots financing is underwriting a new crop of neighborhood businesses

In the summer of 2008, business partners Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting were making plans to open a bookstore in Brooklyn. Their chosen neighborhood, Fort Greene, was over the moon at the prospect. For years, residents had been clamoring for a bookstore, repeatedly citing it as their top need in surveys conducted by the neighborhood association.

Although Fitting and Bagnulo still had a long way to go -- they hadn't found a space yet or secured financing for the venture -- the Fort Greene Association decided to throw a party to welcome them to the neighborhood. More than 300 people came.

That was in mid-September. A week later, the financial crisis hit. Even before the meltdown, Bagnulo and Fitting knew that securing a bank loan for a start-up bookstore would be tough. Now it looked downright impossible.

The warm welcome from the neighborhood gave them idea, though.

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Putting Wal-Mart’s green moves in context

What journalists and even environmentalists so often fail to do in reporting on Wal-Mart's sustainability announcements is to provide some context. Context is everything. Consider Wal-Mart's latest announcement: It will push some of the factories that supply its stores to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. That's a good thing in and of itself, but what happens when we measure it against Wal-Mart's overall impact on the production of goods? One of the significant consequences of Wal-Mart's rise and radical reshaping of the global economy has been a steep decline in the life span of many products. We wear out clothing, …

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Neighborhood stores: An overlooked strategy for fighting global warming

Our new neighborhood fresh food market.What I find most striking about my mother-in-law's memories of the neighborhood where I live, and where she spent her childhood in the 1940s, is how many businesses our little residential section of town once boasted. Back then, there was a grocery store, hardware store, barber shop, two drugstores, a tailor, and several corner stores. Those businesses all disappeared in the following decades, as the streetcar lines were dismantled, families acquired cars, and shopping migrated out to supermarkets and, later, malls and big-box stores. At the low point, my neighborhood hosted little more than a …

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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The impossibility of a green Wal-Mart

With its recent flurry of green initiatives, Wal-Mart has won the embrace of several prominent environmental groups. "If they do even half what they say they want to do, it will make a huge difference for the planet," said Ashok Gupta of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Environmental Defense, meanwhile, has deemed Wal-Mart's actions momentous enough to warrant opening an office near the retailer's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. "If [we] can nudge Wal-Mart in the right direction on the environment, we can have a huge impact," said the organization's executive vice president, David Yarnold. Wal-Mart's eco-commitments are not without substance. …