Posts from March 2010

Walmart Redux: Citizens and Consumers

I wouldn’t normally write about the same subject twice in a row, but the impassioned responses to last month’s column on Walmart’s move to cut carbon emissions from their supply chain made me want to give it another think. Thanks to all of you who took the time to be considerate, whether or not we agree. And a shout out to the poet!

The comments, many angry or hurt, suggest that we here at EDF haven’t done a good enough job of explaining what we do, why, and who pays for it.

Reducing personal consumption won’t by itself solve global warming

Let’s start with the premise that when it comes to solving the climate crisis, simply reducing personal consumption is not enough. The problem is much too large, and developing far too rapidly. Plus, many people don’t even yet feel enough concern about climate change to motivate them to make changes.

Consider this: What if, instead of committing itself to reducing carbon emissions, Walmart had simply said: “Who cares about global warming? We don’t believe in it. We don’t want to revamp anything until regulations force change.” Ask yourself: Would we be better off?

This gets me to the work of EDF–harnessing markets to protect the environment by “making it profitable to put out less pollution” as president Fred Krupp says. EDF has been a pioneer and leader in working strategically with companies for 20 years. This is why I was drawn to their work in the first place; it manages the nifty trick of being idealistic, ambitious and pragmatic. EDF is dedicated to solving what I think of as the defining crisis of our century: mitigating pollution that began with the industrial revolution, and has been magnified by the post World War II chemical revolution.

EDF is interested working with market leaders–companies whose decisions affect whole economic sectors. So yes, EDF does support free enterprise, or capitalism. No, EDF is not against all consumption. Yes, EDF has a track record of protecting the environment. And most emphatically NO–EDF does not take money from its corporate partners. The environment is their only client. EDF is funded by generous individuals and foundations.

Remember these? You no longer see Styrofoam containers at most fast food restaurants because EDF worked with market-leader McDonald’s to cut waste.

It’s now 20 years since EDF first worked with McDonald’s to reduce its packaging waste by 150,000 tons. This was followed by a highly successful project with McDonald’s to curb the use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture. Since then EDF has worked with Whole Foods and Wegman’s to clean up the shrimp farming industry; it has worked with Walmart to cut waste; it has worked with FedEx to develop hybrid delivery trucks, and in the process transformed the entire delivery industry. The list goes on.

“Markets by themselves, much like currents in a river, are neither good nor bad,” says Gernot Wagner, an EDF economist who sees himself as a “pragmatic” optimist. “Properly guided, they can be a force for good. Entrepreneurs see environmental challenges as opportunities rather than hindrances.”

It is interesting how many readers of last month’s column frame their environmentalism as a choice between consuming or not consuming, forgetting, it seems, that we have to define ourselves first as citizens, not as consumers. Of course, every living creature consumes. The needless, mindless consumption that wastes precious resources, pollutes and even kills, is another matter.

LandfillTo change our throwaway culture, we must be citizens first, then consumers.Town Hall

All of us can be more watchful of our habits, without necessarily giving up on vacations, or raspberries in February. Every day scientists learn more about the consequences of our choices, whether in the metals in our fish, the emissions from our cars, the chemicals in our soaps, the microwave radiation from our cell phones or the fertilizers on our fields. Every day, it seems, we learn something more that inspires us to make adjustments in our consumption.

Personal action, however, can be expensive. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to buy a new car. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to install new geothermal or solar systems; not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to retrofit their houses with new insulation. Until the prices for many “green” items come way down, they will not be widely adopted. That does not mean we ought to shoulder a massive guilt trip–that would be inappropriate, and counterproductive. The burden of responsibility has to be on us collectively–on our governments, and our corporations, those entities that have the largest impact on our lives.

It is our job, as consumers, to decide how to spend our money. It is our job, as citizens, to decide how to spend our energy. Speak out, lobby, protest, persuade, agitate, march, sit-in, write, sing, or dance. Do what you can. I believe we should be angry, and that our voices should be harnessed to demand better leadership from our elected and appointed officials–and our media.

Why is it that as the effects of global warming intensify, polls show that fewer people feel it is of significant concern? Those of us whose job it is to communicate the findings of scientific research have only ourselves to blame.

People often ask me how I feel about “preaching to the converted” in this column. I think we can see in the wide-ranging responses to Walmart’s decision to cut emissions that there is no consensus among environmentalists–much less the general public–about how to move forward. There is no such thing as “the converted.” Anyway, I have an aversion to that phrase, as it implies faith, as does the idea of “belief” in climate change, and faith and belief are not the appropriate response to peer-reviewed scientific data. Simple learning and understanding will suffice, as will putting out accurate, verifiable data to the contrary. So far there isn’t any sound science behind the claim that global warming doesn’t exist.

It is every citizen’s job to get smart. You don’t have to become a climate scientist and reanalyze data, necessarily–just as you don’t have to become a cell biologist to accept a doctor’s recommendations. Read up on the science, learn the facts, and stop mumbling politely when someone tells you that what you see all around you during these “extreme weather events” as we now call them (as though they were some form of sport), isn’t really happening.

Shop at Walmart or shop at the bodega on the corner, but make sure that’s not the only way you are putting your money where your mouth is.

Personal Nature
Take action! Exercise your voice as a citizen and tell the Senate to cap the pollution causing global warming.

Walmart Amps Up the Green Light

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’s pollution reduction goal will affect every step of the manufacturing process from raw materials to recycling.

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 by NumbersWalmart 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.

WalMart's Carbon CutsAs 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.

Personal Nature
Take action! Tell the Senate to cap the pollution causing global warming.

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