Can Walmart Money Clean the Seas?

Last year its family foundation gave almost $72 million to help clean up salt and freshwater, but is their charity too little, too late?

An Ocean Conservancy beach cleanup on South Padre Island, Texas. Walmart donated $3.7 million to the conservancy last year. (Photo: Ho New/Reuters)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

A little more than two decades ago I was among the first national journalists to question the social and economic impact of the fast spreading “Walmart-ization” of the U.S.

The already huge, volume-buying, deep-discounting, low-wage-paying giant box stores were proliferating across rural America, many of them sucking business away from already bad small-town economies. For stories published in The New York Times Magazine and Mother Jones, I spent several weeks in the heart of Iowa—Independence, population 6,100—talking with Main Street shop owners, realtors, county politicians, and the town’s mayor about their fears and hopes as the economic landscape shifted around them. Given the inevitable loss of homegrown business they knew would accompany Walmart’s arrival, it was hard not to see it as bad for the town.

Back then, in 1989, there were 1,400 Walmart’s spread across the U.S., generating sales of $20.6 billion a year; Sam Walton was the richest man in the country, with an estimated worth of $6.7 billion.

Today the now-global enterprise has 9,600 retail units under 69 different banners in 28 countries, with sales in 2011 of $419 billion. While Bill Gates topped 2010’s Forbes list of wealthiest Americans ($54 billion), coming in at numbers 7, 8 and 9 were Sam Walton’s three kids (Jim, Alice and Rob, worth about $20 billion each). If papa were still alive and heading the company he started, he’d easily be the richest man in America.

Which is a circuitous way of attempting to weigh the pros and cons of what the Walton family chooses to spend its money on. In recent years the Walton Family Foundation has “tiptoed” into giving to environmental issues, particularly efforts to protect ocean and freshwater.

While the bulk of the family foundation giving goes to education reform and much of it stays in their home state of Arkansas, it has generously given to environmental initiative. Last year alone they nearly donated $72 million, including more than $36 million to grantees working on ocean issues—the Ocean Conservancy ($3.7 million), Conservation International Foundation ($18.6 million), Nature Conservancy ($9.3 million) the Marine Stewardship Council ($4.5 million), the World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund ($7 million)—and nearly $23 million earmarked for freshwater conservation.

In recent years the Walton Family Foundation has ‘tiptoed’ into giving to environmental issues, particularly efforts to protect ocean and freshwater.

“We focus our work in the United States’ primary river systems and in some of the world’s most ecologically significant marine areas,” says the foundation’s director of Environment Focus, Scott Burns. “It’s important to us to protect and conserve natural resources while also recognizing the roles these waters play in the livelihoods of those who live nearby.” The specific projects it funds are mostly aimed at encouraging sustainability and efforts to get fishermen working together with environmentalists.

The foundation’s effort has ironically been muddied by fishermen, who protest that one goal of the big environmental groups Walmart supports is to put more and more U.S. waters off-limits…to fishermen. New Jersey’s Recreational Fishing Alliance, for one, calls the gifts an effort to “fund the demise of both the recreational and commercial fishing industry.” The group’s biggest concern is the spreading of Marine Protected Areas, which it regards as taking away the inalienable right to fish wherever/whenever for whatever.

The RFA and others have organized boycotts of Walmart (Safeway, too, which has also supported the creation of MPAs). Protestors suggest the Waltons’ charitable giving may one day directly impact their stores cash registers; no sense buying all those fishing lures and tackle from Walmart if the fishing grounds are closed off.

The very real problem of  “overfishing” clearly does not register with the protestors.

“Walmart apparently prefers customers buy farm-raised fish and seafood caught by foreign countries outside of U.S. waters, while denying individual anglers the ability to head down to the ocean to score a few fish for their own table,” says executive director of the RFA Jim Donofrio.

For their part, the recipients of Walmart’s charitable largesse have mostly kept quiet about the kerfuffle. EDF spokesman Tom Lalley represents the distancing the marine groups have tried to put between themselves and at least the reputation of the box stores: “It was the family, and specifically the family’s foundation, that made a contribution for sustainable fishing and ocean conservation, not the store.”

Regardless, Walmart the corporation has been invested in at least seeming environmentally responsible in more recent years. Wisely viewing it as both the right thing to do for the environment and simultaneously good for the bottom line, the company has been a leader among big corporations trying to green operations. Its environmental efforts include reducing waste, encouraging environmentally friendly packaging, using as much renewable energy as possible, promoting energy efficiency, improving its delivery trucks’ fuel efficiency and requiring factories around the world to comply with local environmental regulations. Specific examples on the shelves include being a top seller of concentrated laundry detergent, convincing CD, DVD and videogame makers to make lighter cases to reduce transport carbon emissions and encouraging light bulb makers to refine designs.

But Walmart is responsible for creating a variety of environmental messes that no amount of greenwashing can make go away, and some in the environmental community think that it’s all too little, too late. Walmart Watch, a nonprofit group run by the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, says the company has paid numerous fines over the last decade for violating air and water pollution rules, and that its green initiatives will easily be erased by its sheer growth, which will mean more energy usage, more delivery truck trips and even more miles driven by consumers to get to Walmart stores that displaced smaller, more local ones.

In addition, many of its stores run 24 hours a day, using up much more energy than the majority of other retail stores. The large parking lots are major contributors to “no point source” water pollution (a leading cause of water pollution in the U.S.). In 2010 Walmart was forced to pay $27.6 million to the government of California for violating environmental laws, a suit initiated after a health inspector observed a Walmart employee dumping bleach down a drain.

And what transpired in Independence, Iowa, after Walmart came to town? Main Street continued to shutter and its population dropped. Five years ago Walmart opened a 99,000-square-foot Supercenter in the town, one of 35 in the state. Five hundred people lined up to apply for the 125 new “associates” jobs, paying $10.30 an hour.

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