Q: I heard that Walmart is having a bigger positive impact on the environment than any other U.S. institution. What are they doing along these lines?
A: Walmart has been working to clean up its image in recent years, and many environmentalists are pleased with the company's commitment to reduce its massive carbon footprint. Many, however, view the company's initiatives with skepticism, especially considering its overall impact on communities.
What's noteworthy on the environmental front is not so much the significant energy and emissions the company is reducing at its stores and distribution centers and in its vehicles, but the ripple effect that its new carbon-cutting policies are having on the entire supply chain. This March, Walmart CEO Mike Duke announced a new goal of eliminating 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from its global supply chain—the equivalent of taking more than 3.8 million cars off the road for a year—by the end of 2015.
"To find these reductions, Walmart will be asking its estimated 100,000 suppliers to cut the amount of carbon they emit when they produce, package and ship their products," reports Dominique Browning of Environmental Defense Fund, which has been a key advisor to Walmart on green issues. Browning cites Walmart's elimination of large laundry detergent bottles—since so much of them are water and energy-intensive to ship—in favor of concentrates sold in smaller bottles. As a result, concentrated laundry detergent is now the top seller at not only Walmart but at other stores, too. Walmart also convinced CD, DVD and video game makers to make their cases lighter to reduce transport carbon emissions, and they helped energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulb sales by spurring makers to refine their designs.
Many environmental and community advocates, however, consider Walmart's pro-green efforts as too little too late or insignificant in relation to the company's larger impact. Walmart Watch, a nonprofit group run by the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, says the company has paid numerous fines over the last decade for violating air and water pollution rules and that its green initiatives will easily be erased by its sheer growth, which will mean more energy usage, more delivery truck trips and even more miles driven by consumers to get to Walmart stores that displaced smaller, more local ones.
Wake-Up Walmart, a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, says the company—which employs 2 million people in more than 7,000 stores—is also no friend to employees. Its average wage, says the group, is 6 percent below the federal poverty level for a family of four. Its move into urban areas, aside from destroying small businesses, often depresses other nearby wages where similar jobs otherwise pay as much as 18 percent more than Walmart. Further, says Wake-Up Walmart, the company pays $5,000 less yearly to full-time female employees than male ones, and its health plan is so poor that it forces many employees to rely on publicly assisted healthcare, at taxpayer expense.
Walmart Watch says the company has also been fiercely anti-union: "Labor law violations range from illegally firing workers who attempt to organize ... to unlawful surveillance, threats and intimidation of associates who dare to speak out." Meanwhile, Walmart made a $14.3 billion profit in 2009, and its CEO earned $12.2 million in 2008, 587 times the annual income of an average full-time Walmart associate.