Walmart’s Greenwash


Sustainability as growth strategy

Walmart’s growth has been go-go-go ever since it launched its sustainability initiative. Walmart adopted sustainability as a corporate strategy in 2005. It was struggling mightily at the time. Bad headlines stalked the chain, as its history of mistreating workers and suppliers finally caught up with it. One analysis found that as many as 8 percent of Walmart’s customers had stopped shopping at its stores. Grassroots groups were blocking or delaying one-third of its development projects. Stockholders were growing nervous. Between 2000 and 2005, Walmart’s share price fell 20 percent.

As then-CEO Lee Scott told The New York Times, improving labor conditions would cost too much. It would also mean ceding some control to employees and perhaps even a union. Going green was a better option for repairing the company’s image. It offered ways to cut costs and, rather than undermining Walmart’s control, sustainability could actually augment its power over suppliers. Environmentalism also had strong appeal among urban liberals in the Northeast and West Coast—the very markets Walmart needed to penetrate in order to keep its U.S. growth going.

Since Scott first unveiled Walmart’s sustainability program, the company’s head office in Bentonville, Ark., has issued a steady stream of announcements about cutting energy use, reducing waste, and, more recently, selling healthier food. Most of these announcements declare goals, not achievements. But the goals sound audacious enough to reliably produce sweeping headlines and breathless accounts of how Walmart could remake the world by bending industrial production to its will.

By 2010, the number of Americans reporting an unfavorable view of Walmart had fallen by nearly half, from a peak of 38 percent in 2005, to 20 percent.

What the news media haven’t reported

As I started to work on this series, I looked back at the coverage of Walmart’s sustainability campaign over the last six years and was shocked by just how much of a public relations boost the media have given the company and how little public accountability they have demanded in return.

Some of the most serious environmental consequences of Walmart’s business model simply aren’t on the table. Walmart doesn’t talk about them and, despite expending a lot of ink and airtime on the company’s green activities, the news media don’t either. Indeed, journalists rarely stray beyond the parameters of what Walmart has put in front of them.

More surprising is the absence of basic information essential to evaluating what Walmart is actually accomplishing. Take, for example, the share of Walmart’s electricity that comes from renewable sources. There have been thousands of news stories and blog posts on the company’s renewable energy activities since 2005, so one would think this number would be reported often. I couldn’t find it anywhere. (I did eventually dig up enough data to figure it out myself. The answer: less than 2 percent of the company’s electric power in the U.S. comes from its wind and solar projects.)

Or take the case of the Sustainability Index, Walmart’s much-publicized effort to put a green rating on every product it sells. Two years after the media fanfare surrounding the announcement, no journalist, as far as I can tell, has investigated what progress, if any, Walmart has actually made. (According to my research: not much.)

This series aims to fill in some of these gaps and, hopefully, inspire other writers and journalists to take a closer look at what Walmart is and isn’t doing.

What environmentalists haven’t paid attention to

“Walmart is here to stay”—that’s the refrain I often hear from the many environmental organizations and green-business advocates who have applauded the company’s sustainability efforts. The world’s largest retailer isn’t going away, the thinking goes, so anything it does to reduce its footprint is a good thing.

But Walmart circa 2005 is, in fact, long gone. Today’s Walmart is much, much bigger. It sells 35 percent more stuff in the U.S., and its international store count has almost tripled, from about 1,600 to 4,600 stores.

For Walmart, sustainability is a growth strategy—and a highly effective (and darkly ironic) one at that. Six years ago, Walmart was facing widespread opposition, including legislation that would have required better labor practices and limited the company’s growth. Thanks at least in part to its sustainability campaign, and the warm reception from many environmentalists, those roadblocks have eroded and Walmart’s expansion is once again rolling at full speed.

As it grows, Walmart pushes out existing enterprises and local economic systems and replaces them with its own, often far more polluting, global supply chain and sprawling stores. If any single fact could sum up what’s at stake, it would be that Walmart now controls one-quarter of our country’s grocery sales and aims to capture half—a prospect with disastrous implications for the environment, social justice, and local economies.

So far, though, most mainstream environmental organizations have focused on the small bits of good that Walmart could do—reduce PVC in packaging, for example—while ignoring the much larger consequences of its ever-expanding business model.

Walmart by the numbers: Green vs. growth

Walmart’s six-year-old sustainability campaign has helped improve its public image, enabling the company to grow bigger and faster. That growth, ironically, has dramatically increased the retailer’s environmental footprint, and hurt local economies and the U.S. job market along the way.

2005 — year Walmart launched its sustainability campaign

38 — percentage of Americans who had an unfavorable view of Walmart in 20051

20 — percentage of Americans who had an unfavorable view of Walmart in 20102

530 million — total square footage of Walmart’s U.S. stores in 20053

698 million — total square footage of Walmart’s U.S. stores in 20114

641 million — approximate area of the island of Manhattan in square feet

1,587 — number of Walmart stores outside of the U.S. in 20055

4,557 — number of Walmart stores outside of the U.S. in 20116

60,000 — approximate number of acres covered by Walmart’s U.S. stores and parking lots7

0 — number of times since 2007 that Walmart’s annual sustainability reports have referenced the company’s impact on land-use patterns and household driving

152 — number of abandoned Walmart stores in the U.S. listed as available for lease or sale on the company’s realty website8

210 — minimum number of new stores Walmart plans to open in the U.S. in 20129

1.5 million — approximate metric tons of CO2 saved each year by energy-efficiency improvements Walmart has made to U.S. stores built before 200610

3.5-3.9 million — approximate metric tons of CO2 emitted each year by Walmart stores built in the U.S. since 200611

<2 — percentage of Walmart’s U.S. electricity consumption that currently comes from its solar projects and specially purchased wind energy12

300 — approximate number of years it would take for Walmart to reach 100 percent renewable energy at its current pace

1988 — year Walmart opened its first supercenter selling a full line of groceries

25 — percentage of U.S. grocery sales now captured by Walmart13

29 — number of U.S. metro areas where Walmart captures more than half of all grocery spending14

196,000 — number of U.S. jobs lost from 2001 to 2006 as a result of Walmart’s imports from China15

1,940 — number of small retail firms (fewer than 20 employees) per 1 million population in the U.S. in 199216

1,455 — number of small retail firms per 1 million population in the U.S. in 200717

$312 billion — Walmart’s revenue in 200518

$419 billion — Walmart’s revenue in 201019

$8.81 — average hourly wage at Walmart’s U.S. stores20

$943 — average annual cost to taxpayers of providing Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance for each Walmart employee, based on data from Ohio21

1. Zogby International poll conducted in November 2005.

2. Walmart data as reported by the American Prospect in May 2011.

3. Walmart 2005 Annual Report [PDF] (figure includes Sam’s Club).

4. Walmart 2011 Annual Report (figure includes Sam’s Club).

5. Walmart 2005 Annual Report [PDF].

6. Walmart 2011 Annual Report.

7. Author’s calculation based on store data in Walmart’s annual reports and the typical number of parking spaces provided per 1,000 square feet of retail store space.

8. Site searched on Oct. 28, 2011.

9. Walmart press release, Oct. 12, 2011.

10. Author’s calculation based on data in Walmart’s annual sustainability reports.

11. Author’s calculation based on data in Walmart’s annual sustainability reports.

12. Author’s calculation based on data reported in Walmart’s annual sustainability reports. A small percentage of the electricity delivered by utilities around the country is also from wind and solar, so Walmart does get some additional renewable power that way, as we all do.

13. Estimates range from 22 to 28 percent.

14. Data reported for the year 2009 by Metro Market Studies, a commercial market share data provider.

15. Robert E. Scott, “The Wal-Mart effect: Its Chinese imports have displaced nearly 200,000 U. S. jobs,” Economic Policy Institute, June 2007.

16. U.S. Census Bureau, Economic Census.

17. U.S. Census Bureau, Economic Census.

18. Walmart 2006 Annual Report [PDF].

19. Walmart 2011 Annual Report.

20. “Is Wal-Mart Worse?Gotham Gazette, Feb 14, 2011, citing wage data supplied by the independent market research firm IBISWorld.

21. Data provided by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and published in a report by Policy Matters Ohio, “Public Benefits Subsidize Major Ohio Employers: A 2008 Update,” July 31, 2008.


Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where she directs initiatives on independent business and community banking. She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and also writes a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin. She lives in Portland, Maine, and has lately joined Twitter.