Why Walmart’s “green” footprint is missing so many toes

November 20, 2012 by Frontline Copy

by Faith Attaguile

Wal-Mart's green footprint is not yet sustainable

Seven years ago, Walmart CEO Lee Scott announced a new sustainability plan. When he said, “We will not be measured by our aspirations. We will be measured by our actions,” the world blinked in wonderment. But have the chickens now come home to roost?

Walmart goes “green”

Walmart’s sustainability plan included:

  • Running on 100% renewable energy
  • Offering more eco-friendly products and packaging
  • Reducing carbon emissions and overall waste

Shortly thereafter, Al Gore trekked down to Arkansas to show his film “An Inconvenient Truth” at an all-day meeting of Wallmarters. The company was happy. Gore had given it the green nod.

Since then, Walmart has indeed taken steps down the road to greater sustainability in several areas. Recently, Walmart even sweet-talked its way into Portland, Oregon, by promising to build a 40,600 square foot green roof atop its proposed 90,000 square foot store.

Wow. But …

What's missing?

Wal-Mart's green footprint is missing some toesWhen I first read about Walmart’s change of heart, I thought, “Why the sudden turn toward sustainable practices?”
After all, Walmart had never been a triple bottom line company putting equal weight on people, planet and profits.

Profits, yes. But the planet, community and Walmart’s employees? Hardly.

But then I read Yvon Chouinard’s 2012 book “The Responsible Company.” Noting the results of an earlier McKinsey & Company survey on Walmart, he writes:

  • 54 percent of customers thought Walmart was “too aggressive"
  • 82 percent thought Walmart should be a “role model for other businesses”
  • About 14 million people (2-8 percent of the survey respondents) no longer shopped at Walmart because of what they’d heard about it

Was Walmart’s green turn just a ploy to smooth out a ragged reputation and increase profits?

Perhaps. But Chouinard says their reasons aren’t what’s important. The presence of key stakeholders in their sustainability plan are.

What makes a green business … sustainable?

Chouinard says five stakeholders must be part of any company’s sustainability plan. They are:

  1. Owners
  2. Workers
  3. Customers
  4. Communities
  5. Nature

Since 2005 Walmart has primarily addressed the environment (#5: Nature) Solar paneling on the roofs of its stores, more eco-friendly packaging and zero waste are some of the changes they’ve been making.

All good start … but still …

Even in Chouinard’s Nature category, the figures are grim for Walmart. Check out the infographic to the side of this post so see some of them. (For the stats, thanks go to Stacy Mitchell who wrote the great post “Walmart by the numbers: Green vs. growth”)

Today, communities hosting Walmart’s big-box stores still feel the crunch. And a global reach needing a global transport system doesn’t do much for the environment, either.

But there’s another big problem: Walmart’s workers.

Interestingly, Walmart’s 2005 sustainability plan doesn’t even mention them. And as Chouinard notes, workers must play a key role in any sustainability plan.

What do workers have to do with it?

“I work for one of the richest companies in the world and yet my children are on state healthcare and we get subsidized housing.”
-- Sara Gilbert, Walmart Customer Service Manager, Seattle

Walmart is a non-union shop. And stories of retribution for speaking out about safety problems and unfair labor practices are rampant.

The company is known for the low wages it pays its hourly workers, too. The lowest starting hourly rate is $8 per hour. The highest level is only $1.70 above that.

Thus, the highest starting salary an hourly worker can make at Walmart is about $15,830/year. That’s for full-time work.

Remember: The 2012 U.S. poverty guideline for a family of two is $15,130 (or just $23,050 for a family of four). That makes Walmart’s hourly wages nothing to brag about.

But there’s more. Walmart’s policy keeps most of its one million hourly employees on part time. That way it can duck benefit payments like health insurance.

So far too often Walmart’s hourly workers have to get Medicaid or food stamps because they can’t afford the basics. When they do, it’s U.S. taxpayers who pay the bill -- not Walmart.

The management side? They aren’t suffering. Not even near. In 2011, Walmart CEO Michael Duke’s compensation package was $17.6 million.

Think about it. In just two days of 2011, Duke made two times what the average hourly Walmart worker makes in a whole year.

Where’s the green in that?

A missing green toe speaks up

But Walmart’s free ride on the sustainability bandwagon may be coming to an end. Walmart workers are speaking up -- even in the face of reprisals from their “green” management.

They are protesting across the country this Thanksgiving week. These actions will culminate in a boycott of Black Friday. Aligned with their communities and church groups, Walmart employees are making a brave attempt to change their situation for the better. Here’s what they’re saying:

For its own good, Walmart should listen to them.

And study how other green companies (like Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s) have addressed this issue.

Unlike Walmart, these green companies aren’t missing toes from their green footprint. And when they find something wrong, they set about transparently righting it. That’s what makes them leaders in the urgent move to a sustainable world.

Patagonia. Dr. Bronner. Walmart.

The first two walk their talk. The other one talks a lot, but hasn’t yet learned to walk.

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