The Waltons

Oops — 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.

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Walton Family Foundation logoEstablished by Walmart founder Sam Walton in 1987 and run today by his children and grandchildren, the Walton Family Foundation has quietly grown into one of the largest foundations in the country. Last year, it ranked second in the nation based on total giving, behind only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s impossible to untangle all the connections between the Walton Family Foundation and the Walmart corporation. They are separate entities, but the Waltons pull the strings within both — the family has complete control over the foundation and significant control over the corporation.

The foundation’s board is made up entirely of Waltons. Walmart’s board includes three family members: Rob Walton, who’s been a director since 1978 and chair since his father Sam died 20 years ago; Jim, another of Sam’s sons; and Greg Penner, who is married to Rob Walton’s daughter, Carrie, one of the more visible and active directors of the foundation.

More important than board seats is stock: The Waltons own about 50 percent of Walmart’s stock. Yes, it’s mind-boggling, but a single family owns half of the second-largest company on the planet, a corporation whose revenues last year exceeded the GDP of all but 23 countries.

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This year alone, the Waltons will pocket more than $2.7 billion in dividends from their Walmart stock. That’s more than the combined income of 53,000 American households earning the median income. The Waltons’ wealth and their capacity to fund their foundation rests not on a residual fortune amassed generations ago, but rather on a fat pipeline of profits flowing directly from Walmart’s current success.

The overlapping interests of the Walton foundation and the Walmart corporation are particularly evident in the realm of the environment. Walmart launched its sustainability campaign in 2005. About the same time, the Walton Family Foundation began ramping up its giving to environmental causes. The environment is now one of three major funding areas for the foundation.

Last year, the foundation made $71 million in grants to environmental organizations — with the largest grants going to groups that have collaborated with Walmart. In addition to EDF, top recipients included Conservation International, which has a corporate partnership with Walmart, and the Marine Stewardship Council, which began receiving foundation support the same year it agreed to certify and provide an eco-label for some of the seafood Walmart sells. These three organizations accounted for 46 percent of the foundation’s environmental funding last year.

Jon Coifman, spokesperson for EDF’s Corporate Partnerships Program, says that, while the organization has an ironclad policy of not accepting donations from the corporations it works with, EDF has always been less restrictive with respect to individual donors and family foundations because “it would simply be prohibitive to attempt to vet every stock portfolio or source of income.” Coifman also says that EDF “holds Walmart to the same standards we would any other company.”

What does it mean for the environmental movement that the Walton Family Foundation is now one of the largest environmental grantmakers in the nation? For one thing, it means that Walmart’s money is exerting significant influence in setting the agenda, defining the problems, and elevating certain kinds of approaches — notably those that reinforce, rather than challenge, the power of large corporations in our economy and society. That’s a worrisome trend given how far this company’s tentacles already reach into our economy and government.

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