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

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.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.