Walmart Wants to Make Food More Sustainable—but Don't Confuse a Pledge With Practice

The big-box king has a long history of making splashy eco-friendly announcements with lame follow-through.

(Photo: Daniel Oines/Flickr)

Oct 7, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Let’s just let Walmart have its moment, shall we, and get the slick PR shtick out of the way. Yesterday, the world’s biggest retailer crowed that it's dedicated to creating a more sustainable food system.

“In front of hundreds of associates, suppliers, and nonprofit organizations at its Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting, Walmart today announced its commitment to create a more sustainable food system,” reads a statement marking the event. (You can practically hear the horns blaring from the all-American marching band.)

How does Walmart plan to do this? Through what it calls four key pillars: “improving the affordability of food for both customers and the environment”; “increasing access to food”; “making healthy eating easier”; and “improving the safety and transparency of the food chain.”

To frame this bold, dynamic vision, of course, you need a bold, dynamic quote from Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon, to show the company is serious and not shunting the whole thing off to some ineffectual arm of the corporate organizational flowchart. So here we go:

The future of food is absolutely critical for both our society and for our business, which means we have a huge opportunity to make a difference here. We’ve learned on our sustainability journey that we’re most successful when our initiatives create social and environmental value and business value at the same time. Food is our number one category worldwide, and we are going to do even more in our grocery business in the years ahead. Paving a sustainable future for food is necessary for society and our business.

It all sounds laudable. Too bad it’s likely nothing more than a marketing ploy.

Because if you take a hard look at Walmart’s previous much-publicized-but-ultimately-lackluster efforts at sustainability, what McMillon calls a “journey” looks more like "greenwashing" to plenty of critics.

One of the most vocal of these is Stacy Mitchell, codirector of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses. In 2012 and again last year, Mitchell wrote two reports for ILSR that peel back Walmart’s PR gloss to reveal a retail behemoth that is as doggedly committed to the bottom line as ever. Whatever relatively paltry amount Walmart is spending on its environmental initiatives, Mitchell argues, it has reaped far more feel-good publicity. These promises pay for the company, even if they don't pay off for the public.

Take Walmart’s oft-repeated, stunning goal of “working toward 100 percent renewable energy.” Well, Mitchell’s report last year was titled Walmart’s Assault on the Climate, so you can see where this is headed. Eight years after former Walmart CEO Lee Scott announced the retail giant would become a leader on sustainability issues (presumably to as much fanfare as yesterday’s announcement), the company today derives 4 percent of its electricity from renewable sources—far behind, say, Kohl’s, which uses 100 percent renewable energy, and even lagging behind McDonald’s 30 percent.

Notably, as Mitchell points out, Walmart’s sustainability goals are typically framed as big game changers (100 percent renewable energy!), but unlike the company’s other goals (total sales, for example, or store growth), its environmental benchmarks almost always lack a timetable. At Walmart’s current rate, for example, it will take 300 years for it to achieve its goal of using 100 percent renewable energy.

But it’s the press announcements that make headlines and burnish Walmart’s corporate image with consumers. Back in 2005, the company was facing a public backlash over its labor practices and rampant growth; some 38 percent of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of Walmart, according to Mitchell. By 2010—five years after it launched its sustainability initiative (and garnered much press)—that number had dropped by almost half, to 20 percent.

As Mitchell writes in her 2012 report, Walmart’s Greenwashing, since announcing its very public decision to go green, “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"—and now, two years later, sustainable food. "Most of these announcements declare goals," she continues, "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.”

If Walmart’s fuzzy “commitment to create a more sustainable food system” is anything like the one it announced (again, to much hoopla) in 2009 to improve the sustainability of everything it sells, it’ll no doubt follow the same trajectory: a whole lot of press attention that, in turn, makes a wary public more comfortable about shopping at Walmart—followed by a whole lot of equivocating.

The rot at the root of Walmart’s efforts to become more environmentally friendly, critics argue, is that its fundamental business model is the antithesis of sustainable. “Twenty-acre parking lots that define and extend sprawl, 200,000-square-foot stores that cumulatively generate millions of miles of automobile travel, and literally hundreds of abandoned, massive facilities left behind as community blight,” as Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council has put it. “And I’m not even getting into labor practices or impacts on local businesses.”

When it comes to our nation’s food supply, there are already telltale signs that Walmart’s “sustainable” meddling might do more harm than good, even as the mega-retailer is poised to have a big impact no matter what: It already claims a 25 percent share of the dollars Americans spend on groceries, and it has its sights set on capturing 50 percent.

That staggering growth created rampant consolidation in the food industry, Mitchell points out, as “meat-packers, dairy companies, and other food processors merged in an effort to be large enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process.” This hasn’t been good for farmers. For example, Mitchell cites USDA statistics that show that for each dollar American shoppers spent on pork, the share that went to farmers fell from 45 cents to 25 cents between 1990 and 2009—while the share that went to Walmart and other big chains rose from 45 cents to 61 cents.

There’s a bit of cruel irony, too, in Walmart pledging to make food more “accessible,” presumably in low-income communities in food deserts. As Mitchell writes: “For neighborhoods that are truly underserved, it seems hard to argue with the notion that having a Walmart nearby is better than relying on 7-11 and McDonald’s for meals. But poor diet, limited access to fresh food, and diet-related health issues are a cluster of symptoms that all stem from a deeper problem that Walmart is likely to make worse: poverty. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet quality, a 15-year study recently concluded, and access to a supermarket makes almost no difference."

Here’s the real kicker:

“Neighborhoods that gain Walmart stores end up with more poverty and food-stamp usage than communities where the retailer does not open, a study published in Social Science Quarterly found. This increase in poverty may owe to the fact that Walmart’s arrival leads to a net loss of jobs and lower wages, according to research by economists at the University of California-Irvine and Cornell.”