Walmart may not be the first corporation that comes to mind when discussing sustainable companies. Despite Walmart’s commitments, it has actually received quite a bit of flack over the years for its negative environmental impact.
Many of Walmart’s green problems stem from the sheer size of the corporation. It has over 4,600 stores in the United States, occupying nearly 700 million square feet and employing 2.2 million Americans. In the 2016 fiscal year, the company’s total revenue was $482 billion.
It’s no surprise then that a company of this size has been criticized for emitting millions of tons of CO2, building huge retail stores and encouraging waste with its low-quality products.
Walmart, greenwashing, and the future of corporate sustainability
October 24, 2005, the day the company’s original three sustainability goals were announced, is known as a “defining day in the history of Walmart.”
Still found on the Walmart website, the three goals are as follows:
- To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy
- To create zero waste
- To sell products that sustain people and the environment
Despite these goals and the slew of compounding press releases that followed, Walmart’s greenhouse gas emissions only continued to grow. The company’s renewable power usage peaked in 2011, and by 2014, Walmart derived a mere four percent of its U.S. electricity supply from wind and solar power.
Due to the lack of significant progress, Walmart continues to be accused of greenwashing, or projecting an image of sustainability to make consumers feel good about buying their products. Many people aren’t buying into Walmart’s sustainability narrative — which means it’s about time that Walmart committed itself to transparency.
Incorporating openness and accountability into new sustainability initiatives is an obvious way for a company like Walmart to combat its critics. It is also a likely attempt to appeal to a more environmentally and socially conscious demographic – namely, millennial consumers.
Walmart’s Commitments to Sustainability
Walmart’s commitments echo the original three sustainability goals but include a 2025 cutoff date and more detail:
- Achieve zero waste in Canada, Japan, U.K., and the U.S.
- Be powered by 50 percent renewable energy sources
- Double sales of locally grown produce
- Expand sustainable sources to cover 20 key commodities, including bananas, grapes, coffee and tea
- Use 100 percent recyclable packaging for all private label brands
With these goals, Walmart hopes to achieve a circular economy, an approach to sustainability where products are cycled back into the economic stream rather than ending up in a landfill. A circular economy values the reuse of materials and energy, and encourages design that minimizes environmental impact.
How’s it measuring up so far? By the end of 2015, Walmart had saved 82 percent of materials used in the U.S. from landfills, as well as about 71 percent of those used overseas. That means millions of tons of would-be waste was instead recycled, donated or reused.
Walmart is also the first retailer with an emissions-reduction plan supported by the Science Based Targets Initiative.
This initiative is a partnership between multiple non-profit groups: the Carbon Disclosure Project, United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund. It aims to help companies devise a plan to mitigate their contribution to climate change.
Is Walmart the most sustainable company in the world?
The short answer is no. According to Newsweek, Walmart ranks 184th for 2016 greenest companies in the United States, and 280th in the world.
In the U.S. rankings, Walmart was superseded by 183 other companies, with Hasbro, the Rhode Island based toy company, coming in first place.
With a track record of this caliber, it is hard to imagine Walmart becoming the most sustainable company in the world. Many of the corporation’s fundamental qualities — such as its size, aggressively low price points, low-quality products and reported maltreatment of its employees — deviate from typical framework of a company aiming for sustainability.
Nonetheless, Walmart has pledged to change not only consumers’ perception of the company, but also the fundamental issues that result in a lack of company-wide sustainability. Time will tell whether or not Walmart’s commitments to transparency and truth is reliable and productive.
If nothing else, it is at least a brazen acknowledgement of the lack of transparency cultivated in the company’s past. Whatever the motivation, Walmart is envisioning “a world where people don’t have to choose between energy they can afford and energy that’s good for communities and the planet.”And that, of course, is a vision worth pursuing.
Mary is a writer and editor for Poplar Network.