The Latest Corporate Social Responsibility News: Walmart and Sustainability: Oxymoron or Salvation – or Both? 07.21.09  
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Bill Baue of Sea Change Media

Walmart and Sustainability. That pairing of terms elicits strong reactions, usually falling into roughly three camps: oxymoron, salvation, and the rest of us

The "oxymoron" camp, who believe Walmart's business model of overdriven underpaid factory workers pumping out cheap goods into thousand-mile supply chains that feed a consumption-based society inherently and unavoidably conflicts with sustainability.

The "salvation" camp, who welcome Walmart using its market muscle as a "bully pulpit" to push sustainability advances from the top down -- which arguably produces more change quicker than grassroots, bottom-up sustainability initiatives.

And then there's the rest of us, who see truth in both of these two contradictory ideas (with a nod to this maxim from F. Scott Fitzgerald.) I include myself, because I lived in this schizophrenia for almost a year while I wrote Walmart's first sustainability report in 2007, keenly skeptical of the Goliath's conversion to the religion of sustainability, and cautiously hopeful of the promise of grander conversions that Walmart's change of heart heralded. I continue to straddle both sides.

Now, two years later, Walmart just unveiled its Sustainable Product Index, which provides fuel for both fires. In a nutshell, the index (which has been in development for over a year) poses 15 questions in four broad categories (energy and climate; material efficiency; natural resources; and people and community) to 100,000 of its suppliers worldwide, with a future goal of translating the data into simple product sustainability ratings for consumers. Walmart Chief Merchandising Officer John Fleming called the survey "a key first step toward establishing real transparency in our supply chain," and CEO Mike Duke called the index a tool "to help enable sustainable consumption."

Chalk one up for "salvation," if this rhetoric proves true. Peek beneath the hood, however, and the oxymoronists may win this round. As Joel Makower of GreenBiz points out, Walmart scores a point for including social issues under the sustainability umbrella (which often focuses exclusively on environmental concerns), but the five questions in the "people and community" bucket "barely scratch the surface," he notes. "For example, they don't address most worker issues, like wages, health care, and the right to air grievances," Makower states - not to mention the right to unionize, an area where I witnessed the company vacillate back and forth over taking a clear stance.

This points to the difficulty of distilling complex sustainability issues into bite-sized "ratings" for easy comprehension by ill-informed consumers. For example, UK retailer Tesco's introduced carbon labeling last year to much fanfare, but the practice of listing carbon footprints on products came under fire for confusing consumers. Before that, US outdoor-wear maker Timberland introduced its Our Footprint and Green Index Rating providing data about social and environmental impacts from product manufacturing and use in a box resembling food "nutrition facts" labels on some of its packaging. Here again, these laudatory efforts met with some skepticism on their limitations at their introduction -- trusty Makower said, "as a ‘nutritional' label, Timberland's leaves me -- well, hungry for more."

The difference with Walmart is, of course, scale. In a word, Walmart can change the world by asking all its suppliers to report on the sustainability of their products (and showing preference to suppliers who rate better.) And as Ecological Intelligence author Daniel Goleman points out, Walmart's rating scheme also holds promise for changing consumer habits toward preferring sustainable products -- a true game-changer.

But the question always returns to first principles: is product consumption really the path to sustainability, or is it more through de-materialization -- products not consumed, sold, or produced in the first place? In other words, the logical conclusion of the oxymoronist line of reasoning is a world without Walmart. The logical extension of the Salvationist view is a radically transformed Walmart radically transforming the world -- toward sustainability. Much as I would love to see a world without Walmart (or more accurately, a world based on a different economic model than the perpetual growth model Walmart exemplifies and excels in), the realist in me realizes Walmart ain't going away any time soon, so I also root for it to change the world for the better, if it can.


Editor's Note: One of the principal challenges to capitalism as established in the Western world is that market transactions are driven by the cheapness of the items offered for sale, and very little opportunity is given to the customer to choose products and services based upon the provider's impact upon the survivability of the world. "Organic" and "natural" labels are a small step in the right direction. Surveys show that most people will pay a little more to purchase goods and services that have been produced in a way that is consistent with decent working conditions and long-term Human survival on Earth. In the absence of information about the way in which the product or service has been produced, customers choose the cheapest seemingly equivalent item, which, in the long run, leads to proliferation of very cheap goods and services, poor workling conditions, massive profits, and a wasted world. We applaud Wal-Mart's intention to provide more information to its customers so that responsible manufacturing is favored over destructive practices.

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