As the world’s largest retailer, third largest public corporation and the largest private employer, eyes have been on Walmart’s sustainability agenda since 2005. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when Walmart employees far outshone the government during the storm’s rescue and recovery efforts, the company has pledged an ambitious makeover. Led by former CEO Lee Scott, Walmart again this year has achieved progress on increasing efficiency throughout its supply chain, installing clean energy technologies and eliminating waste at its stores.
But 2012 has also been a roller coaster at Walmart. The company has faced criticisms over dubious suppliers, corruption in Mexico, Black Friday madness and talking the talk but tripping over the sustainability walk. While its sleek Green Room blog launched to much fanfare in January, the company’s overall corporate social responsibility (CSR) record is, at best, mixed–and some would say the old image of Walmart as a corporate bully is back with a vengeance.
True, the company’s commitment to renewable energy continues. New wind power and solar installations have inched the company towards its long term promise to run its operations off of alternative energy. And, in addition to renewable energy installations, Walmart has also saved money by ramping up its waste diversion efforts. The company could save as much as $150 million during FY 2013 thanks to its sustainability programs. The global seller of $50 billion in electronics annually, however, could do better on the e-waste recycling front.
The nation’s largest grocer has also promised to increase sales of locally sourced food, though the definition of “local” is still in flux. Critics of genetically modified foods, however, may scoff at Walmart’s decision to sell Monsanto’s GMO-derived sweet corn; and the reality is that the company is still yet another cog in America’s industrial food system.
Those who roll their eyes at the thought of Black Friday, which this year really became Black Thursday, will also seethe at the company’s behavior as the Christmas shopping season approached. Walmart has long faced a bevy of complaints about the treatment of workers and alleged discrimination of women, but complaints about its employment practices accelerated this past month. Walmart attempted to halt strikes planned at some of its stores on Black Friday and later claimed that the protests were at best tepid.
The joys of the holiday season, moreover, were marred after the horrific fire in Bangladesh last month that killed 112 apparel factory workers. Walmart distanced itself from the events leading up to the tragedy, but the evidence suggests Walmart’s suppliers both used the factory and that the company resisted paying for any safety improvements.
Walmart will continue to improve its environmental performance, largely in part because it saves the company money; but when it comes to the “S” in CSR, Walmart needs a massive amount of improvement. From paying its “associates” a reasonable wage to guaranteeing that workers in factories abroad work and live in dignity, Walmart has a long road to go before it satisfies its critics and key stakeholders.
Update: Leon Kaye wrote this article the weekend before the final report of the NYT article on the corruption in Mexico broke yesterday, December 17.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
Image credit: Walmart Green Room