Walmart’s Sustainability Campaign is now in its seventh year, and according to a new report by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the retail giant’s progress has been less than stellar: “At its current pace, Walmart will need roughly 300 years to reach its goal of 100 percent renewable energy.” With the installation of solar panels on 130 Californian super stores, and the purchase of 180 million kilowatt-hours of wind power in Texas each year, the ISR reports that Walmart still only manages to derive less than two percent of its power from these renewable sources, and with operating profits of $25.5 billion last year Walmart noted in their most recent sustainability report that “it has sometimes been difficult to find and develop low-carbon technologies that meet our ROI.”
It’s not just Walmart’s renewable energy goals which are falling short. The ISR report, titled “Walmart’s Greenwash” also highlights that the company’s much touted 2009 announcement of a Sustainability Index, which would provide consumers with information about the environmental impact of each product available, and would in turn prompt consumers and suppliers to make greener choices. It’s a pretty fantastic idea, and prompted much enthusiasm, but the ISR found that 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.” Furthermore, Walmart’s Sustainability Consortium, who collectively back the produce analysis includes such members as Monsanto and McDonalds, and is run by academic institutions with close ties to the Walton family.
Additionally, the ISR breaks down Walmart’s political contributions. While it comes as no great surprise that Walmart is a conservative operation, their contributions to climate change deniers further undermine their claims of sustainable goals. Since 2005, Walmart’s PAC is reported to have given $25,000 to John Boehner, $30,000 to Roy Blunt and $29,500 to John Boozman. 40 percent of the $3.9 million that Walmart has given to members of Congress since 2005 has gone to members who vote “against the environment 80-100 percent of the time.”
So is Walmart’s floundering on their sustainability goals a product of ineptitude, or was their sustainability plan created solely as a brand strategy with no backbone? The ISR would appear to suspect the latter, noting that in 2005, Walmart’s share price had dropped 20 percent from 2000, and as the store’s popularity fell, CEO Lee Scott “told the New York Times [that] improving labor conditions would cost too much,” and speculates that sustainable branding was adopted to deflect criticism. With announcements of solar arrays, government grants to improve energy efficiency and a regular roll out of sustainable goals, the ISR believes that Walmart’s Sustainability Plan is “the low-tar cigarette of the environmental movement: it admits there’s a problem, but offers a kind of pseudo solution that’s really aimed at keeping us all puffing.”
Perhaps it comes as no great surprise that the world’s largest rtailer lacks the drive and political will to become a legitimate, leading sustainable brand. With over 698 million square feet of stores in the U.S. alone, and sales dependent on the cheap prices of imported, mass-produced goods it will take significant changes in both the company and consumer awareness for Walmart to create a sustainability plan as huge as their own brand.