Walmart Amps Up the Green Light
March 8, 2010 | By Dominique in Global Warming
The recent news from the political front on global warming has made many hearts heavy. The Copenhagen climate talks fizzle; the well-respected head of the UN climate change convention resigns. And in a polarized Congress, climate legislation languishes, while irresponsible politicians are claiming that climate science is "snake oil" and seeking ways to prosecute scientists.
How exciting, then, to get a high-wattage jolt of energy—and responsible leadership—from a powerful ally in the fight against global warming: Walmart, one of the largest companies in the world. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, these days politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows—business does.
Walmart isn't waiting for politicians or regulators to do the right thing. Last week CEO Mike Duke stood on a podium with EDF's Fred Krupp and announced a goal of eliminating 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from Walmart's global supply chain by the end of 2015 (watch webcast of the announcement). That's the equivalent of taking more than 3.8 million cars off the road for a year. Or, if you look at it another way — saving 2 billion gallons of gasoline a year.
To find these reductions, Walmart will be asking the estimated 100,000 companies that supply it to cut the amount of carbon they emit when they produce, package and ship their products. This pollution reduction goal will affect every step of the manufacturing process from raw materials to recycling.
For instance, suppliers could label clothes to be washed in cold water instead of hot water, or accelerate the innovation of fabrics that dry faster. "The significance of Walmart's commitment is the shift in perspective that it represents,” says Elizabeth Sturcken, EDF's managing director for corporate partnerships. “It's like moving from using a microscope to using a satellite to find opportunities for carbon pollution reduction across the globe."
This action, the result of five years of collaboration with EDF and others, is sure to have a tremendous ripple effect. When Walmart makes a sea change, it hauls other companies along in its wake. And these companies are not small: Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble. Moreover, Walmart reaches consumers at home, a surefire way to change attitudes and habits. Consider a few examples:
- When Walmart decided that the shipping and storage of large containers of laundry detergent was wasteful (so much of it was water), it told suppliers it would only carry concentrates to be sold in smaller containers—and that’s become the dominant form of detergent at Walmart and all other retailers.
- When Walmart took a hard look at the DVDs on its shelves, the company asked 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment to make the plastic packaging lighter, cutting lifecycle carbon emissions significantly and saving energy. Subsequently, the lighter packaging was used for software and games as well. These greener products are now being sold everywhere – not just at Walmart – an example of how a small change can have a big multiplier effect.
- When with EDF's help, Walmart decided to educate its customers about the energy efficiency of CFLs by setting up informative displays in their stores, it sold hundreds of millions of bulbs. That compelled manufacturers to make refinements in their design and the quality of their light, transforming an entire industry.
Walmart has also been addressing its own carbon footprint—though that is dwarfed by suppliers' emissions. It is increasing the efficiency of its trucks and stores. All this is saving the company money, and that, of course, is what Walmart is about. The company can, and undoubtedly will, do more. As Mike Duke, Walmart's president, puts it: "We need to get ready for a world in which energy will only be more expensive, and there will only be a greater need to operate with less carbon in the supply chain."
More than a third of all Americans shop at the country's largest retailer every week. To critics, such big box stores are juggernauts indifferent to quality and local values. Certainly, large retailers' way of doing business reinforces corporate and global food production. Walmart, like others, relies on a massive network of transport spanning great distances. Global sourcing has occasionally resulted in shoddy or even dangerous products on retailers' shelves, such as when lead paint was found in toys from China. Like all chain stores, the outlets are physically disassociated from the very towns in which they sit, though they certainly create jobs, no small matter. But it's also true that Walmart has begun developing closer relationships with its suppliers, buying locally, demanding better quality, and now, reducing its carbon emissions.
As John Lyle, who was a professor of landscape architecture at California Polytechnic Institute, wrote: "What humans designed we can redesign and what humans built, we can rebuild." Walmart's climate initiative is an important step in that direction. Participation is voluntary, though Walmart has made it clear that companies that cut their emissions will have an advantage in getting their product onto its shelves. Compliance remains a thorny issue, as the international supply chain is plagued by practices like illegal logging and phony labeling. Walmart is working on a detailed set of guidelines for accountability (you can comment on it on EDF's Innovation Exchange website in a few weeks), and is pressing for more transparent sourcing. "We need a clear chain of custody from start to finish," explains EDF project manager Michelle Harvey.
In this recession, we've heard a lot about what's gone wrong with globalization. But today, it is possible that Walmart, one of the most agile players in the global economy, can show us how to harness the world marketplace to encourage innovation and cut dangerous pollution. "Walmart's work will impact almost every American consumer, regardless of where they shop," says Steve Hamburg, EDF's Chief Scientist. "These are the products that are sold on every Main Street: a win for the environment. The idea is to change industry norms; that will help to strengthen American businesses and reduce the impact of our consumer society."
Some thoughtful environmentalists feel we aren't going to get things right until we have a wholesale transformation of our values—and that includes cutting way down on consumption. As David Orr writes: "We do not often see the true ugliness of the consumer economy." We need a rebirth of social values that protect the environment. But that kind of change takes a long time, perhaps generations. We have experienced that painful crawl in the evolution of our attitudes about race, feminism and sexuality. How much time do we have?
We are beginning to see glimmers of change in our consumer mentality, partly because of a shaky economy and partly because of demographics. I have a hunch—based on anecdotal evidence—that baby boomers, facing empty nests and insecure stock markets, are scaling back their lifestyles, moving into smaller homes and lightening up. There does come a time when enough's enough—when we no longer feel the need for more stuff that's going to be thrown away.
There is a profound value in slowing down the pace of our lives, deepening our connections to the natural world, and honoring what is, after all, our children's heritage.
The more we understand the consequences of waste and pollution, the more intolerable those become.
I believe Walmart understands this message. As the company's president says, America needs "comprehensive legislative policy that addresses energy, energy security, the country's competitiveness and reducing pollution." Sure, cutting waste is good for business, and recasting the argument against global warming as a matter of wastefulness is smart marketing. But the message from Walmart to the American people is loud and clear: America's corporate leaders want action on global warming!
So if you're wondering who is selling snake oil these days….well, perhaps the global warming deniers will consider shrinking their packaging.