Institute aims to keep Walmart honest on sustainability front

Walmart is guilty of greenwashing to enhance it corporate reputation, and it would take the company three centuries at the current pace to reach its goal of being supplied 100% by renewable energy, according to a group critical of Walmart sustainability efforts that others have lauded.

“Walmart's sustainability campaign has done more to improve the company’s image than to help the environment,” said Stacy Mitchell, a senior research and author of the report “Walmart’s Greenwash,” that was published this week by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

For starters, who even knew such a group as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance existed, let alone had been around for 38 years. Not that the organization’s obscurity diminishes its perspective or findings mind you, it’s just that Walmart has faced similar greenwashing assertions ever since its sustainability initiatives were formally announced in the fall of 2005, but more often than not environmental groups have tended to give the company credit for making progress and demonstrating a genuine commitment to integrate sustainability into business processes. However, as the ILSR report points out, since 2005 the number of Americans with an unfavorable view of the company has fallen by nearly half, from 38% to 20% and therefore the company’s efforts are dismissed as greenwashing because it contends real progress is lacking.

For example, the report contends Walmart derives only 2% of its U.S. electricity from wind and solar projects, its greenhouse gas emissions are increasing rapidly, and because it places price pressures on manufacturers they in turn provide poor quality goods that don’t last, which contributes to a sharp increase in the amount of stuff Americans buy and a doubling of the trash households generate. Walmart continues to build sprawling stores on undeveloped land near older stores it has abandoned and it has made little progress on a goal of developing a sustainability index to rate consumer products, according to the report. Lastly, the group contends Walmart’s share of the U.S. grocery market is driving increased consolidation and industrialization of the food supply, which harms the environment and small-scale agriculture.

At this point it is worth recalling that the acronym ILSR stands for Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and the group’s mission is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. Or put another way, to hinder the growth of large corporations and retailers in particular. For example, the organization’s site provides a “Big Box Toolkit,” which is a step by step plan for countering larger retailers’ expansion efforts, and the author of the “Walmart Greenwash” report also published a book in 2007 called “The Big Box Swindle,” which asserted that mega-retailers are responsible for many of society’s most pressing problems, from the shrinking middle class to rising pollution and diminished civic engagement. Given this background it’s not surprising that Walmart’s progress and ongoing efforts in the area of sustainability would be dismissed as greenwashing.