Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Wal-Mart and the Green Critics

Want to make real progress for the environment? Stop crapping on people who are doing something about it.

Over at the Daily Grist is an article titled Keep Your Eyes on the Size: The Impossibility of a green Wal-Mart. After recognizing Wal-Mart's outstanding commitments to greater efficiency - which include a 20% improvement in energy efficiency of all stores, the doubling of the fuel economy of their truck fleet, and the public reporting of their carbon footprint - the article's author, Stacy Mitchell, glibly dismisses the company's efforts because their carbon footprint does not take into account the SUVs that you, the consumer, drive to their stores.

Here's the key issue. Wal-Mart's carbon estimate omits a massive source of CO2 that is inherent to its operations and amounts to more than all of its other greenhouse-gas emissions combined: the CO2 produced by customers driving to its stores.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am not pro "big box" stores. I avoid all of them whenever possible, and I universally boycott Wal-Mart in particular for precisely the reasons Ms. Mitchell points out. However, credit where credit is due. Wal-Mart is making a more substantial commitment to green improvements than virtually any other major corporation, or government for that matter.

The real distraction taking place is the one occurring in the environmental community itself. While green leaders and publications like Grist continue to hunt their demons and dream of lofty ideals, they utterly fail to grasp the fact that long-term change towards sustainability and environmental responsibility is going to occur step-by-step, not by waving a magic wand and wishing for a perfect world.

Big box stores, oil companies and other destructive industries are with us and won't be disappearing anytime over the next several decades. However, with each year that passes they can be transformed, or slowly eliminated, through voluntary actions like Wal-Mart's and through strong government leadership that provides genuinely green rules and incentives. Wal-Mart's commitment to a 20% improvement in energy efficiency is something to be embraced. With that strong beginning taking place, it is now for governments to step in and get the ball rolling faster.

Want to stop Wal-Mart from transporting goods to heartland America from the far corners of the world? Double fuel taxes, cut taxes for local businesses and products, and levy taxes on imported goods. Want to stop the damage caused by consumers commuting to Wal-Mart? Double the fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, invest in urban planning and public transportation, and raise taxes at the gas pump so people won't burn fuel commuting to big box stores built on asphalt covered farmland. People will no longer go to Wal-Mart for 'cheap' products, because it will no longer be cheap to do so.

The responsibility for those changes is the province of government. To change government inaction we, the voters, need to start speaking up to this guy, and this guy, and insist that they stop denying global warming. We need to start talking to our neighbors who elected them in the first place and show them a better alternative, and for the 45% of you who don't bother going to the polls, you need to take a break from voting for the next American Idol and start making your voice heard in favour of the people who will make these changes.

Until that happens, Wal-Mart is making some of the world's biggest improvements towards greener operations. If you're criticizing that, then try planting some trees instead of barking up the wrong one. You'll be doing the environmental movement way more good.


Lyze said...

What you say makes sense.
My thoughts as well.

I was going to email you this, since it isn't really relevant to this post, but I didn't find an email to you.

Perhaps I did not look well enough.

Anyway, if you get the chance, read 'Ecocities' by Richard Register.
An amazing read, that has shaped my ideals of practically what I was planning to attempt as an ecocity.

WindWhisperer said...

Good for least they are demonstrating awareness of the issues by doing their part.

Peter Dodson said...

I agree that we shouldn't poo-poo the work that Wal-Mart has done to be "greener," but the Grist does have a point - Wal-Mart stores are purposly built at the edge of towns and that means that people generally have to drive longer to get to their stores. If they built in more central locations, people would have to drive less to get to them.

Saying that, I totally dig your point. The path to sustainability is one step at a time and our footprint doesn't have to be ZERO - just a whole lot less than it is now.

Anonymous said...

You say the path to sustainability is step by step, that every incremental change gets us closer. But let's play with a simplified senario. Let's say that we need to take 100 steps to reach carbon neutrality or some other measure of sustainability. Let's say that over the next 6 months, we take one step. But over that same 6 month period, the growth of our conventional economic system wipes out the gains of that one step and adds enough new pollution that now we need to take 150 steps to reach carbon neutrality.

What should we do? Should we just take another step over the next six months --- after all, we're headed in the right direction!

Or should we step back and recognize that incrementalism is not going to get us there. The problem is systemic. It requires that we fundamentally rethink how we organize our economy.

E. R. Dunhill said...

It’s interesting that you’re posting about green Wal-Mart, as I was just arguing this point with a colleague a few days ago. My feeling is increasingly that when it comes to social responsibility and the environment, there are few genuinely bad guys, and decidedly fewer genuinely good guys. There are lots of good practices and bad practices.
The consumer must praise the good and ask for improvement with respect to the bad practices. As you pointed out, this all comes down to the balance sheet. If being responsible earns the company more money through efficiency or by drawing-in a larger market share, then businesses will be responsible. If not, they won’t. For good or bad, capitalism values capital.
Whether or not people like Wal-Mart, it is important to praise work the company does for the environment. Wal-Mart is not going to dissolve tomorrow, and when huge multinational corporations do fall apart, they don’t just go away. Bits and pieces of them keep working under someone else’s brand. Does anyone really want to see an environmentally hostile Wal-Mart? Or do we want to watch a floundering environmentally hostile Wal-Mart sell-off its environmentally hostile parts?
Greens everywhere need to evolve their thinking. We need to focus on the results we want and work toward them in the real world.

Temujin said...

Wal-Mart stores are built at the edges of towns because enviro-loons and anti-capitalists continually lobby against a central location for Big Box stores.

raise taxes at the gas pump so people won't burn fuel commuting to big box stores built on asphalt covered farmland.

Oh yes, punish people financially for making a personal choice. Do you know who shops at Wal-Mart? Low and middle-income families shop there. Many of which cannot exactly afford a drastic increase in fuel costs.

Your ideas are insane.

Odiyya said...

mathematically true anonymous. but your simplified scenario misses two points. first, a 20% improvement in efficiency and doubling fuel efficiency of a fleet of vehicles is more than one step...this is real impact.

second, you missed the other main point that i made. wal-mart has made step one. now its for government to put in the right policy to ensure that those gains aren't wiped out (for instance, by doubling the number of stores they are open).

that responsibility is gov't, not walmart's. walmart is doing their part.

Odiyya said...

PS - bingo E.R.D. Awesome to hear from someone who understands the issue

Odiyya said...

Temujin - you're only responding to half of it. you raise taxes to make their current practices not possible, but as i said you drop taxes and create incentives for local products at the same time. this makes them cheaper.

then if you really want to be progressive, you follow Al Gore's recommendations and cut lower income income taxes at the same time as you raise taxes on unsustainable business.

George said...

Wal-Mart sells a lot of crap that no one needs. If they want to do something for the environment, they should have people walking their aisles telling people to stop consuming so much crap.

Anonymous said...

Commentators like the one above talk a lot of crap. if blog owners want to run a good site, they should email them back and tell them how full of crap they are and ask them to say something intelligent instead.