Last year, the Walton Family Foundation, heirs to the Walmart fortune, gave environmental conservation grants totaling $71.4 million to 160 organizations around the globe. The grants were primarily focused on the areas of Freshwater Conservation and Marine Conservation. The environmental program is one of three investment areas for the Foundation. The other two areas are education reform, to which the foundation gave $159 million, and Home Region, for which 2011 figures are not yet available (they gave $45.6 million in 2010). The foundation also gave another $1.2 billion in 2010 to create and furnish the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
In the environmental area, the funds for the two focus areas were distributed as follows:
$26.8 Million for Freshwater Conservation
- Nature-based tourism opportunities throughout the Mississippi River Basin facilitated by the National Audubon Society.
- Restoration initiatives with the Nature Conservancy on the Colorado River.
$30.5 Million for Marine Conservation
- Conservation efforts for fishing resources on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast with Conservation International.
- Support for the Marine Stewardship Council to create a market for sustainably-caught seafood
The other $14 million was disbursed over a wide range of organizations ranging from the Aspen Center to the Desert Botanical Garden; from the Environmental Defense Fund to the Urban Ecology Center. Recipients included tourist destinations and municipalities.
This largesse on the part of the foundation will undoubtedly do a lot of good in areas requiring attention. As to whether that will compensate for the actions of the parent company, that is another question entirely. The company has been accused of greenwashing by a number of reputable organizations. This could be another case of lots of frosting but not a whole lot of cake. In 2005, the company announced their sustainability program, which included a number of ambitious targets which are not being met. For example, they claimed a goal of 100% renewable energy consumption. Seven years later, they have reached 2%. They don’t appear to be walking the walk. Mostly they are focused on growth, at what seems to be any cost. Their highly touted Sustainability Index, has been a disappointment, consisting mostly of large companies paying a hefty fee to participate in the process of setting targets that they already meet.
According to a report on Walmart’s environmental footprint published by the Sierra Club, their impact falls in three areas: energy, transportation and waste.
Carbon emissions of 20 million metric tons is close to five times higher than the next largest retailers, putting WalMart in the same league as small countries such of Yemen or Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, according to Sierra Club, the energy consumed by each WalMart Supercenter is equivalent to 1100 homes. Extrapolating out over the 4500 stores that the company now operates in the US alone, (75% of which are Supercenters), that works out to about 4.5 million homes. In 2005, the company pledged to reduce the GHG emission 20% by this year. That hasn’t happened. Any reductions due to efficiency were more than offset by the additional stores built.
In transportation, the impact is primarily in the amount of material being shipped from China. Choosing sources closer to home would save a lot of miles and emissions. That is not to mention the fact that the 200 million customers that the company serves every week, generally have to travel outside of town to get to the stores.
As for waste, much of the low cost merchandise they sell (e.g. $6 toaster) is not durable and ends up in a landfill before long.
Changing these trends require real commitment. Much of the sustainability improvements realized over the past few years have been achieved by the suppliers rather than the company itself. Some feel that was due to the change in leadership.
Of course, none of this takes away from the good works of the foundation, it only helps to put it into perspective.
Image credit:nsub1:Flicker Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.