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Tina Casey headshot

Walmart Boycott Over Climate Change Looming . . . Or Not

By Tina Casey

TriplePundit has been exploring the efficacy of boycotts, or lack thereof, and we could be on the verge of yet another test case. Retail giant Walmart has joined a growing list of companies to publicly oppose U.S. President Donald Trump over climate change and the rollback of the Clean Power Plan. That could set the stage for yet another boycott from the Breitbart organization.

In recent months, Breitbart promoted boycotts of Kellogg, Nordstrom and Starbucks to no avail, so maybe the fourth time will be a charm.

Walmart, Apple and GE zing Trump over climate change

The news about the Walmart position on climate change broke last week. Bloomberg's Christopher Flavelle picked out this money quote from a company statement:
“This work is embedded in our business,” Walmart spokesman Kevin Gardner said in an email. It’s “good for the business, our shareholders and customers; if ultimately we are able to positively impact the environment in the process, that’s a win too.”

Walmart is far from alone. Flavelle also cites Apple, quoted here in a joint statement with a number of other top tech companies including Amazon and Microsoft:
“We believe that strong clean energy and climate policies, like the Clean Power Plan, can make renewable energy supplies more robust and address the serious threat of climate change while also supporting American competitiveness, innovation and job growth,” Apple wrote.

General Electric also weighed in early on the Clean Power Plan rollback. Politico got the inside scoop from an internal company blog post authored by CEO Jeffrey Immelt:
“Companies must be resilient and learn to adjust to political volatility all over the world … Companies must have their own ‘foreign policy’ and create technology and solutions that address local needs for our customers and society.”

People are going to freeze in the dark...not

By way of counterpoint, Flavelle teased out this remark from Robert Murray, CEO of the coal company Murray Energy Corp.:
“People are going to freeze in the dark because of the destruction of the reliable electric power grid under Obama and the Democrats ... Mr. Trump is doing the right things.”

However, Murray's position seems to be an isolated one.

Major U.S. companies have been transitioning to renewable energy for years, and they are not likely to slow down.

The movement heated up considerably in 2015, when scores of companies joined the Barack Obama administration in a concerted effort to support a strong U.S. position on decarbonization, in advance of the Paris climate talks.

The administration's so-named American Business Act on Climate Pledge launched in July 2015 with 13 companies, including Walmart. That number ballooned to 81 in only three months.

Also in advance of the climate talks, in September 2015 nine Fortune 500 companies joined the RE100 pledge for 100 percent renewable energy. Walmart was there, too, along with Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Salesforce, Starbucks, Steelcase and Voya Financial.

And those pledges were not all hot air. In 2015 The Rocky Mountain Institute's Business Renewables Center totaled up the results for its initiative to streamline clean power purchases for the business community:

"BRC companies now represent total annual revenues of $1.3 trillion, global annual electricity consumption of 41.7 TWh (equivalent to around 3.8 million American homes), and for publicly traded companies, a collective market capitalization of $2.14 trillion."

Here's a snip from the BRC blog:
"New corporate members include Autodesk, Avery Dennison, Cisco, Digital Realty, EMC Corporation, Equinix, Etsy, FedEx, Microsoft, Starwood Hotels, Steelcase, Workday, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Yahoo!, and others.

"New sponsors include 3Degrees, Affordable Solar, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Capital Power, Community Energy, Duke Energy Renewables, EDF Renewable Energy, Gaelectric, Iberdrola Renewables, Infinity Wind Power, K&L Gates, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, ReneSola, Renewable Energy Systems Americas, Sempra U.S. Gas & Power, SoCore Energy, SolarCity, Sol Systems, Tradewind Energy, and WSP Group."

The Walmart name pops up again here, too. Walmart was an early client of the Rocky Mountain Institute, calling on the organization to advise it on store and transportation sustainability back in 2006.

So, are we going to boycott Walmart?

Breitbart tested the Walmart boycott waters in December 2016, when it zinged the company for providing third-party sales of "Bulletproof/Black Lives Matter" clothing on its website, while banning the sale of Confederate flag-themed merchandise.

Walmart quickly dropped the line before any meaningful boycott got under way. That looks like a case of no harm, no foul -- the Bulletproof line certainly wasn't central to Walmart's business (or, for that matter, the third-party seller), and dropping it barely made a ripple in the Walmart pond.

The Clean Power Plan rollback is a different story altogether. The threat of negative publicity was sufficient to force Walmart into a quick behavior change before the Bulletproof issue snowballed. But forcing the company to alter its behavior on climate change would require a substantial change in its day-to-day operations as well as long-term plans.

Walmart has taken plenty of hits for its employment policies but it continues to set a high bar for action on climate change, and those strategies are deeply entwined with its business model.

A 10-year relationship (and counting) with the Environmental Defense Fund is one factor that has enabled the company to reach deep into its own operations -- and those of its supply chain -- for decarbonization strategies.

As Walmart raises the sustainability bar, the company will continue to come into conflict with Trump administration policies.

That ups the opportunities for Breitbart -- a staunch advocate for President Trump with close ties to the administration -- to push back.

So far, Walmart is walking a careful line on its support for the Trump administration. But in addition to climate change, the company also staked out an opposing position on Trump's border tax. Trump's travel restrictions could also become another point of conflict that makes Walmart ripe for a boycott by Trump supporters.

Given the Breitbart track record on boycotts in recent months, though, the chances for a successful campaign are slim to none.

In the meantime, Breitbart is suffering through a boycott of its own. The Sleeping Giants boycott campaign now stands at more than 1,700 companies that have blocked automatic ad buys from appearing on the Breitbart site, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Photo: Solar installation on Mountain View, California Walmart store courtesy of Wal-Mart via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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