Photo: Lone Primate via Flickr

Wal-Mart has been trying its hardest to distract its environmental critics. In a carefully orchestrated act of diversion, the company shows off its skylights and light bulb sales. In doing so, Wal-Mart has managed to draw attention away from the other, deeper environmental problems lying at the heart of the company’s business model.

Wal-Mart’s public relations efforts help hide the fact that despite all its talk, the company isn’t any greener than it was in 2005 when it laid out a series of company-wide environmental initiatives. The fact remains that Wal-Mart’s energy use is still rising. Until the company significantly reduces the amount of energy used to earn a dollar, its sustainability initiatives remain fundamentally flawed. Several aspects of the company’s basic business model hinder this kind of comprehensive change:

Land consumption and pollution. With the average Wal-Mart Supercenter the size of a football stadium, and parking lots often three times that size, each Wal-Mart store consumes massive amounts of land and the parking lots contribute to water pollution. Multiply that by over 7,000 Wal-Mart stores worldwide, and plans to build hundreds more every year. Wal-Mart frequently chooses to build new stores rather than renovate old ones, multiplying its impact on local land resources.

Car culture. To shop at Wal-Mart stores, consumers must drive cars. Wal-Mart has contributed to a jump of more than 40 percent in the amount of vehicle-miles American households travel for shopping purposes since 1990. Studies also show that larger stores, such as Wal-Mart, pull customers from a larger geographic area, which results in increased traffic — a 200,000 square-foot Supercenter, on average, generates over 10,000 car trips during a weekday, and even more on the weekend. Increased traffic results in increased carbon emissions.

Energy consumption. We applaud Wal-Mart’s efforts to cut energy use in some stores, but the company has a long way to go. Every few years Wal-Mart opens a few greener stores and hundreds of its traditional, energy-draining stores. While Wal-Mart hopes to make its existing stores 20 percent more efficient by 2013, the energy used by the hundreds of new stores it opens every year will significantly offset any savings and its carbon footprint will only grow larger.

Sourcing. Think Wal-Mart buys local? Think again. The company imports the vast majority of its products from overseas — at least 70 percent of its merchandise is from China alone. The effect of this phenomenon is multifaceted. The shipping required to get it across the world exponentially raises the carbon footprint of every product sold in a Wal-Mart store. Manufacturing overseas also means fewer environmental regulations at the point of production. Just last month, a Wal-Mart supplier in China was found to be illegally using protected Russian timber, and many Wal-Mart supplier factories have been cited for environment-related workplace violations. Asking domestic suppliers to make efforts to reduce their carbon footprints cannot possibly compensate for Wal-Mart’s massive global carbon footprint.

Truck fleet and shipping. Wal-Mart not only relies on oil-consuming ocean tankers to ship its goods, but a veritable army of shipping trucks as well. Wal-Mart currently has 135 distribution centers in 38 states, which translates to approximately 120,000 daily truck trips — equal to the approximate number of vehicles that use the Lincoln Tunnel on any given day in New York City. A typical Wal-Mart distribution center that makes 900 daily truck trips emits approximately (according to average emissions rates calculated by the U.S. EPA) 2.4 extra tons of particulate matter and 83 extra tons of nitrogen oxides that enter the atmosphere. In 2005, the company set a goal to increase its fleet efficiency by 25 percent in three years, but the company has not indicated any measurable progress toward that goal.

To fundamentally change its environmental policy, Wal-Mart must address each and every one of these areas and work to reduce the company’s energy spent to revenue-produced ratio. Until now, the company has consistently ignored these deeper issues and focused instead on cosmetic changes and feel-good fixes. Until the company incorporates measurable reductions in each of these areas, its efforts are nothing more than gestures.

The good news is that Wal-Mart realizes that it can no longer afford to ignore its environmental critics. To push Wal-Mart toward fundamental changes in its environmental policy, it is critical that we continue to put pressure on the retailer as it talks about reform and not be distracted by its public relations campaigns. Declaring victory prematurely will only give Wal-Mart permission to evade its commitments. To help keep pressure on the retailer and make sure it keeps its environmental promises, join Wal-Mart Watch’s environmental task force.