Will Walmart Save The World?

Corporate “greening” is dividing environmentalists – and sparking debate on the real meaning of sustainability

“I’ve been an environmentalist for over two decades,” Andrew Telfer tells me. “Back then we used to call it sustainable development, but people didn’t like the word development – the growth aspect of the word – so they changed it to just plain ‘sustainability.’ But I really like the term ‘sustainable development.’ We don’t live in a zero-growth world; the world economy is based on growth.”

Telfer works as Manager of Sustainability for Walmart Canada – one of many sustainability positions the company has created in the past decade.

In 2005, the story goes, Walmart CEO Lee Scott had a eureka moment. The company was receiving widespread acclaim for its relief efforts in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina – a welcome departure from the usual criticism over labour standards and destruction of small business.

“What would it take for Wal-Mart to be that company, at our best, all the time?” Scott asked in a speech later that year. “What if we used our size and resources to make this country and this earth an even better place for all of us?”

Working with prominent American environmentalists and a who’s who of environmental NGOs, Walmart says that it is integrating sustainability into the core of its operations. They’ve identified three key goals: to be supplied 100% by renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain people and the environment. These goals are “aspirational,” the company stresses, with no fixed timeline.

The company points to a raft of achievements over the past few years: increased energy efficiency in its stores and vehicle fleets; 85% of store waste diverted from landfill in Canada; most wild-caught fish sold is now Marine Stewardship Council-certified; only concentrated dish detergent is now sold.

Striking a balance

Walmart’s conversion to the god of greening may be recent, but other multinationals have tread similar paths. Indeed, environmental organizations have been debating the merits of cooperating with corporations for more than twenty years.

The original divisions within the environmental movement may have been sown during the NAFTA negotiations under Bill Clinton. Some organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund, participated in the negotiations, pressing for the inclusion of environmental protections in the final agreement. Others, like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, rejected the agreement outright and took to the streets along with the continent’s major unions in protest.

That split is still evident today in how environmental groups deal with multinational corporations, who are increasingly looking for green cred.

One of the first prominent cases of cooperation involved McDonald’s and the Environmental Defense Fund, who worked together on eliminating the restaurant’s use of styrofoam containers. While they were successful, grassroots organizations like the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste have accused the EDF of helping McDonald’s sidestep more radical demands.

The EDF has since worked with McDonald’s on reducing antibiotics given to chickens, and has become one of the most corporate-friendly environmental NGOs – it even has its own office at Walmart headquarters, where it keeps a permanent staff person. Other groups have followed its lead, and it’s now the norm to work closely with corporations.

“Back when I started in the environmental movement, it was very much an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Telfer recounts. “It seemed to be a battle between the environmentalists and the corporations, or the capitalists. Back then, Greenpeace and Walmart would never even sit at the same table. Now, Greenpeace is regularly in our office.”

Some worry that ties with corporations will prevent NGOs from taking critical stances for fear of losing influence or funding.

“It is tough to strike a balance,” says Sarah King, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace. The organization will work with corporations on particular issues, she explains, but doesn’t form partnerships: “we don’t really have long-term friends or long-term enemies.” She says this approach has allowed them to criticize when they need to, and applaud when it’s deserved.

King believes working with Walmart is essential because so many people rely on the chain for affordable goods. “Organic, local food is a luxury not everyone has… Walmart’s customers don’t deserve sustainable products any less than the rest of us,” she says. “You can’t ignore Walmart.”

Fundamentally unsustainable

But many environmentalists argue that corporations like Walmart are inherently unsustainable.

In the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, The Economist questioned the ability of corporations to make good on bold promises of reform.

“British Petroleum’s travails illustrate the limits of enthusiastic corporate citizenship,” the paper said. “However much BP works with NGOs, it will find it impossible to move beyond petroleum, with all its attendant environmental problems. Likewise, PepsiCo will struggle to live up to the spirit of its pledge to promote healthier living while the bulk of its profits come from fattening drinks and snacks.”

And in the case of Walmart, suggests Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First, “the idea that a company with a business model based on automobile-dependent customers and exploitative supplier factories on the other side of the globe can be considered sustainable should be dismissed out of hand.”

Furthermore, watchdog group Walmart Watch calculates that the company’s constant expansion will itself offset their gains in energy efficiency.

Telfer himself expresses serious doubts. “I’m not saying that Walmart is sustainable – we don’t consider that [to be the case]. But there are sincere efforts happening within the company to lessen our environmental footprint – and those efforts are also saving us money.”

“I don’t truly believe there’s such a thing as a sustainable product,” he says. “I don’t know – can companies, can products, can anything truly be sustainable if they still have an impact on the environment? I think what we have to work towards as an economy, as a population, is towards a limited impact as our economy grows.”

Labour pains

Then, of course, there’s Walmart’s public relations Achilles’ heel: labour standards.

Here again, there is a sharp rift between environmentalists who refuse to work with companies with poor labour standards, and those who believe that any progress is positive.

Labour issues “don’t come up in discussion on a regular basis” in talks with Walmart, says King. Greenpeace is an environmental organization, she adds – they can’t do everything.

Writer Derrick Jensen, a controversial figure in the environmental movement, is emphatic on the issue.

In his book What We Leave Behind, he takes architect Bill McDonough to task for promoting initiatives like green roofs on Ford factories or a Nike headquarters with sustainable design elements as real measures of progress.

“Of course people at the upper levels of a corporation get excited at McDonough’s message: nothing suggests they must fundamentally change the way they do business – a way of doing business that makes them rich… They can continue to exploit workers and destroy the planet, with all their niggling fears erased because they are now participating in a ‘sustainable’ (or rather, ‘sustainable™’) process.”

Can insistence on meaningful sustainability – not just some native grasses on a roof – be compatible with Walmart and corporations like it? Telfer believes firmly that it can.

“I see it as a spectrum, and if sustainability is all the way to the right on that spectrum, that’s maybe where the staunch environmentalists are, where the Greenpeace activists are. They’re needed at the far right, pulling everybody else along the spectrum towards that green utopia,” he says.

“But there are people like me who are also working along that spectrum. I happen to be working behind Walmart, pushing them along that spectrum. So instead of it being an us-versus-them mentality, now we’re working together.”

Source / Fuente: www.theargus.ca

Author / Autor: Ian Kaufman

Date / Fecha: 21/11/11

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