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Are Big Box Stores Advancing or Detracting Sustainability Efforts? Yes.

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Wednesday February 24th, 2010 | 5 Comments

five year anniversary

Since TriplePundit.com launched in 2005, Walmart and other big box stores have gone through quite a metamorphosis in the eyes of many pundits of triple-bottom-line business. In fact, 2005 was the same year that Walmart launched the first of a growing list of initiatives aimed at simultaneously reducing its environmental impact and its operating expenses.

But the decision to do things such as boost the fuel efficiency of its trucking fleet and to aggressively reduce energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste from its stores, wasn’t all driven by efforts to lower operating expenses and portray itself as a jolly green giant. Walmart was, and still is, working off the high environmental—not to mention societal—cost of its low prices. And while it’s taking many meaningful steps forward, in terms of sustainability, how can it erase the impact of millions of metric tons that the 100 million weekly Walmart shoppers emit as they drive to and fro the massive stores?

And when put into perspective, Walmart’s environmental efforts seem to fall a bit short. “By making its existing outlets 20 percent more efficient, Wal-Mart says it will cut CO2 emissions by 2.5 million metric tons by 2013,” wrote Stacy Mitchell, author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, in a 2007 Grist post. “But new stores built this year alone will consume enough electricity to add about 1 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.”

Still, Walmart’s green makeover is both massive and trail-blazing. But it leaves those in sustainability circles—and every day consumers—a bit flummoxed. On the one hand, Walmart is embracing renewable energy, it’s pushing (forcing?) its vendors to lessen their product footprints and it’s reducing plastic shopping bag waste. On the other hand…well, it’s Walmart. In its 2009 Conscious Consumer Report, marketing firm BBMG asked U.S. consumers to “name the most and least socially and environmentally responsible company in the nation.” Walmart was the most-cited company. In both categories.

Walmart isn’t the only retailer that’s garnering a new—but cautious—optimism among greenies. The fact is that over the past five years, big box stores have recognized that mitigating their environmental impacts and those of the products they sell can be important marketing tools.

In 2007, Home Depot launched a major initiative to sell greener products (called Eco Options)   It also provides consumers a place to recycle all those CFLs its selling and is keeping its charitable arm strong despite faltering sales.

Costco has embraced renewable energy and is upping the green cred of the products it sells  (though it’s also been called out for sourcing unsustainable paper products). And while it scored poorly on Greenpeace’s Sustainable Seafood Scorecard last summer, Costo says it does consider the “condition of fish stocks, protection of the marine ecosystem, governmental and regulatory agency guidelines and best management practices” when selecting its seafood sources.

Best Buy is branding itself a bit greener these days by promoting the recycling of used electronics (thereby mollifying consumers’ guilt over replacing their perfectly good TVs with HD flat-screens?) and building new LEED-certified stores.

At the end of the day, the fact that big box stores are sprouting some green wings just makes sense. Of course they’re embracing renewable energy—their stores are massive power hogs, making the return on investment (especially when counting renewable energy credits) very attractive. Hell, yes, they’re selling greener products. Consumers are asking for them, so it’s an obvious competitive advantage.

But what about all of the other areas in which big box stores can have a positive impact? What they’ve done thus far really only scratched the surface. Much is focused on energy efficiency in stores and product lifecycle. While these are very important, so are supply chains and the ways retailers and vendors choose to move goods across the country. What about asking trucking companies not to use fuel from Canadian oil sands? What about requiring all imported products—and not just coffee—to be fair trade? What about making a coalition of retailers to consolidate and select sustainable product labeling standards?  And hey, Walmart, about those unions… Yeah, I know. Now I’m just talking crazy.

So what’s next for the big (green) box stores in the next five years? We’ll keep track. And in the meantime, leave a comment with your opinion of the big box paradox.


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  • nickaster

    Awesome article. The big thing missing concerns land-use. Big Box retail is only efficient if gas is cheap and land is undervalued – including the aesthetic value. Vast parking lots with cheap, brightly lit boxes in the middle create a landscape hostile to any form of transportation other than the car, suck life out of established commercial neighborhoods, and are, in general, rather soul-less. That was always my big problem with them.

    I'm excited to see the many, many advances that the big box retailers have made, and even more interested to see some experimentation going on in terms of store design, trying to make bog boxes more integrated into actual neighborhoods, even walkable.

  • mrsunscreen

    Well done, I enjoyed the read. It is truly a dilemma but at least their doing something, anything. It's better than pure consumption. We are all consumers, we are consuming the earth. So let's try not to consume so much. I'm all for any green initiatives, as we can use all the help we can get.
    The next generation knows, let do our best to help as it will only get worse.
    Cheers

  • http://www.everblueenergy.com/leed-certification Lesley LEED AP

    You have talked about Home Depot; I wonder what Lowe's is doing to be sustainable. As industries that promote building, it would be sensible for both big box companies to promote green building and sustainability. It would be very smart of them to demonstrate their efforts toward sustainability by practicing it. These big box stores concern me more than the others, but I suppose they all make a difference.

  • Kevin Dooley

    The Sustainability Consortium is working with Best Buy and Walmart and other retailers and manufacturers, and the EPA and other similar agencies in other countries, to develop standardized ways in which consumer goods companies can report on the sustainability of their products, covering environmental and social impacts across the entire product life cycle. By providing retail buyers (merchants) better information about sustainability attributes, this will in turn allow them to make better, greener decisions about what products to carry and provide premium shelf space to.

  • Kevin Dooley

    The Sustainability Consortium is working with Best Buy and Walmart and other retailers and manufacturers, and the EPA and other similar agencies in other countries, to develop standardized ways in which consumer goods companies can report on the sustainability of their products, covering environmental and social impacts across the entire product life cycle. By providing retail buyers (merchants) better information about sustainability attributes, this will in turn allow them to make better, greener decisions about what products to carry and provide premium shelf space to.