What to do about Wal-Mart
So, it looks like Wal-Mart’s green turn has some meat on its bones (to mix metaphors). As we noted in DG, CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. announced some fairly specific programs the other day around energy-efficient stores, greenhouse-gas reductions, truck fleet fuel efficiency, packaging reductions, and pressure on overseas suppliers to follow suit.
It remains to be seen whether the company will release specific targets and timetables, regularly report its progress, and generally go about this in a transparent way. But it certainly looks, at least at this early stage, like this is a serious company-wide effort.
On the other hand, Scott also announced a new employee healthcare plan, only to have a fateful memo leak days later — a memo that revealed the frighteningly cold calculations behind the company’s healthcare policies. Clay Risen has an excellent piece on the memo and related matters at TNR, saying "the thrust of the plan, then, is to slash benefits but make superficial changes to mask the impact of those cuts."
Pretty nasty stuff.
Now, my question is: How should environmentalists and environmental groups react to all this?
For some folks, that’s an easy question to answer: Wal-Mart is a Big Evil Corporation, staffed and run by black-hearted, greedy earthfuckers, and can do no good. To offer it anything other than full-throated condemnation is to be played a fool. And so on.
But for me and many others, it’s an open and difficult question. Here are some considerations, in no particular order:
- Much has been made lately about coalition-building among progressive groups. Even though greens are getting thrown a bone, workers are getting screwed, so maybe greens should stand with workers on the healthcare issue. A stand-or-fall-together kind of thing.
- But then again, as Kevin and Ezra both argue, Wal-Mart is doing what a large company inevitably does under this country’s deeply fucked-up healthcare system: Maneuvering to employ the healthiest people and pay the fewest benefits. Big American car companies, staggering under health and pension costs, are doing the same. This has to do not with the moral failings of executives at those companies, but systemic incentives. Until we finally get healthcare out of the hands of the private sector — until we get universal healthcare in this country — every company will be making these same calculations.
- Wal-Mart’s very existence is an environmental nightmare. The idea is to build very large stores (with very large parking lots) to sell cheap goods transported from very far away. That business model carries intrinsic environmental costs that could never, no matter what kind of green building done or sustainable products sold, be acceptable.
- But then, Wal-Mart exists. It isn’t going to vanish. If the one and only acceptable activist stance toward the company is "dissolve thyself!" — well, activists will just be ignored. Given Wal-Mart’s fairly inevitable continued existence and growth, somebody needs to partner with them to push them in a sustainable direction. They won’t partner with people who loudly proclaim them evil.
- The "real" motivations behind the company’s moves are irrelevant. Really. It’s pointless to personalize this. Wal-Mart is huge. The slightest move they make in the direction of sustainability — even if it’s "only" to improve their public image — makes more concrete, practical difference than 10,000 little organic-sock stores on the internet. And isn’t that what environmentalists are ultimately pursuing –concrete, practical difference? Or is it moral virtue? Being right?
- What does "only" doing it for PR purposes mean, anyway? A positive public image is an asset for a company. It’s worth money. If it does something positive on sustainability to enhance its public image, the best possible outcome would be that it enhances its public image. That way, the lesson it learns is: Sustainability initiatives enhance our public image. Let’s do more! On the other hand, if this kind of thing is met with contempt and denunciation by high-minded activists, they learn the opposite lesson.
I don’t have any grand conclusions. My antipathy for Wal-Mart — its business model, its HR practices, its environmental impact, its aesthetic, its cultural associations — runs pretty deep. But it’s just not clear to me that environmentalists ought to exclude themselves from this discussion. And that’s what they’re doing if they make it clear that nothing Wal-Mart does will meet with their approbation under any circumstances.
Wal-Mart is big, and a big deal. Its move in the direction of sustainability is potentially historic. Seems like we ought to encourage it.
Update [2005-10-27 22:38:52 by David Roberts]: I’ll say this: A quick read through Alternet’s Wal-Mart coverage does not inspire many warm fuzzies for the retailer.