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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Some welcome perspective on Walmart's Sustainability Index

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 2, 2012

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  a Walmart in Mexico (by: El Angel Exterminator, creative commons)

Architect/thinker Steve Mouzon, whose very interesting perspective on neighborhood walkability was the subject of my article on Monday, is on a roll, and I’m not saying that just because he has become a friend.  Yesterday Steve skewered Walmart’s “Sustainability Index,” which has been getting some good press lately.  His point: having a sustainability index doesn’t make your business sustainable.  I agree.

Before I go on, let me get this out of the way:  some very good people, including people I call friends and colleagues, have been working with Walmart to help the company improve its practices.  We work with governments and businesses all the time when there are opportunities to make progress, and the perfectly rational argument in favor of this particular one is that, if you care about the environment, you can’t ignore the world’s largest company.  To paraphrase Lord Palmerston, we have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.  So I will not slam those who are doing what they can inside the belly of the beast.

But, no matter what environmental progress Walmart is able to make on its materials, supply chains, or resource use, the company maintains an underlying business model that in my opinion has been terrible for the environment and terrible for the sustainability of communities.  Twenty-acre parking lots that define and extend sprawl, 200,000-square-foot stores that cumulatively generate millions of miles of automobile travel, and literally hundreds of abandoned, massive facilities left behind as community blight will do that.  And I’m not even getting into labor practices or impacts on local businesses.

  Walmart parking lot, Asheville, NC (by: FK Benfield)

Although the company is moving into urban markets with somewhat smaller stores, that is largely because they have saturated the exurbs and are looking for more places to expand their business.  Urban Walmarts carry their own set of issues, but the important point here is that the company’s city stores will be in addition to, not instead of, its tried-and-true sprawl model.

Here’s how the company introduces the Sustainability Index on its website:

“Our customers desire products that are more efficient, last longer and perform better. They want to know the product’s entire lifecycle. They want to know the materials in the product are safe, that it is made well and is produced in a responsible way.

“These desires inspired us to help develop the sustainability index. With this initiative, we are helping create a more transparent supply chain, accelerate the adoption of best practices and drive product innovation and ultimately providing our customers with information they need to assess products’ sustainability.”

Walmart is requiring its “more than 100,000 global suppliers” to assess their own sustainability in a survey; working with a Sustainability Consortium (NRDC is a member), funded by the company and administered by two universities, to “develop a global database of information on products’ lifecycles – from raw materials to disposal”; and developing a tool to bring sustainability information to consumers on products sold in Walmarts.  The company says its ultimate goal “is to improve the sustainability performance of the products our customers prefer.”

  inside Walmart (by: laurieofindy, creative commons)

Those are laudable aims, and consumer disclosure of sustainability information, assuming it’s sound information, could indeed make a difference over time in improving the environmental performance of a wide range of products.


In his post yesterday, Steve applies the principles articulated in his important book Original Green to Walmart’s business practices.  He doesn’t mince words:

“Read the 15 questions on WalMart's Sustainability Product Index questionnaire and you'll see that most of them are completely toothless. But that isn't the point of this post. Here’s the point:

“WalMart is essentially doing a tune-up on an engine that is doing more harm than good, from a sustainability standpoint. They’re saying ‘how can we do the same old thing more sustainably?’ But the same old thing pretty much defines the unsustainable.”

Among the particulars, Steve first cites walkability, which is really laughable when it comes to Walmart’s profoundly automobile-dependent model.  Moving on, he cites the importance of lovable buildings to sustainable places (the point that first attracted me to Steve’s work), another laughable point for this particular company’s buildings.  He then points out that sustainable buildings must be durable, which Walmarts notoriously are not.

  abandoned Walmart, Boonville, MO (by: Rob Stinnett, creative commons)

Here’s what he has to say about the application of flexibility, another principle from Original Green:

“Sustainable buildings must be Flexible Buildings, so that they can be used for many things over the centuries. But WalMart buildings will never get the chance to be flexible because they’re so famously unlovable. In fairness, they are sometimes converted to muffler shops and pawnshops to extend their lives a decade or two as the neighborhoods around them decay because of the toxic effect of the unlovable and dilapidated big boxes. But who believes that any current WalMart has any chance of standing a century from now?”

Steve does give Walmart credit the company’s efforts at energy efficiency.  However:

“But they’re missing much bigger opportunities to be frugal simply because the physical size of the buildings is so large. For example, daylighting and cross-ventilation are two powerful methods for making a more frugal building. But when the nearest exterior wall is a couple hundred feet away, then it’s almost meaningless.”

Steve is hardly the only one taking shots at Walmart, of course.  Here’s a bit from the sustainability website care2, in an article headlined “10 Ways Walmart Fails at Sustainability”:

“While Walmart’s sustainability campaign has done wonders for its public image, it has done little for the environment. In fact, Walmart’s environmental impact has only grown over the last seven years. Its business practices remain highly polluting, while its relentless expansion and consolidation of the market have come at the expense of more sustainable enterprises and systems of production and distribution.”

  Walmart Supercenter, Buncombe County, NC (via Google Earth)

The site faults the company for massive waste generation, failure to match other large retailers such as Kohl’s and Whole Foods on renewable energy, steady expansion of greenhouse gas emissions, and a number of unsustainable food practices.  Two points stood out for me, though.  The first is that 60 percent of Walmart’s $3.9 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress since 2005 has gone to lawmakers who, according to the League of Conservation Voters, usually vote against the environment.  “More than 40 percent of its donations went to lawmakers who vote against the environment at least 80 percent of the time.”

The second standout point concerns Walmart’s truly egregious land use practices:

“Despite its public embrace of sustainability, Walmart continues to maximize its land consumption by building vast, low-rise supercenters. Since 2005, Walmart has added more than 1,100 supercenters in the US, expanding its store footprint by one-third. Most of these stores were built on land that hadn’t been developed before, including, in some cases, critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.

“In many communities, Walmart has chosen to build on virgin land rather than redevelop vacant ‘greyfield’ retail properties. Walmart itself routinely abandons its stores. The US is currently home to about 150 empty Walmart stores, many vacated when the chain opened a newer supercenter nearby . . .

“Yet Walmart’s sustainability program does not address land use at all. Its 2012 Global Responsibility Report doesn’t even mention these very significant environmental issues.” [Emphasis mine.]

  Walmart, State College, PA (by: Ian Turton, creative commons)

I’m glad Walmart is working on its environmental footprint and that of its suppliers.  But, when it comes down to it, the scale of its operations may be an insurmountable obstacle.  Having a corporate goal of world retail dominance is probably not the best way to be a good citizen for sustainability.

Read Steve Mouzon’s article on Walmart here.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment, here and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

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Lee E.Aug 2 2012 12:42 PM

By my calculations, using average store size of 200,000 square feet, plus (conservatively) 15 acre of parking, those 1,100 new Walmarts covered almost 22,000 acres, or 34 square miles of land. 34 square miles! That's a lot of "Save money. Live better," way outside of town.

Dan StaleyAug 2 2012 02:03 PM

Many of us have known this for years, from the first forays where they raised poverty rates when first coming into a county, to their acres of parking with no tree canopy cover, to their wasteful buildings abandoned after a few years. Their ventures into solar and flourescent don't paper over the massive weight of waste.

We are glad that others are catching on too.

BSAug 2 2012 05:50 PM

When measuring the sustainability of Walmart, one must look at the alternative.

While I do understand the heartache around ruining small buisnesses, replacing a bunch of small businesses with one big one results in dramatic improvements in efficiency all the way along the value chain.

For example, go in a small buisness and you'll likely see old, inefficient equipment (T-12's, clogged A/C filters, old motors, etcetera). Then go to a Walmart where everything is efficient. Why? Because a big business has a much bigger incentive to do energy management, and they are also better equipped to devote resources to it. (I speak from experience.)

They also drive an efficient supply chain. For example, you have efficient warehouses, you have more efficient trucking routes, etcetera.

And for the majority of communities where walking everywhere is not an option, consumers drive fewer miles. And fewer starts and stops means higher mpg.

One thing people point to is the cheapness of the products they sell. However, the products they sell are a result of what their customers demand, not the other way around.

I'm not saying Walmart is perfect, but when you start with a conclusion already in mind, you wind up painting a biased picture.

Thanks at least for acknowledging the numerous steps Walmart and your colleagues are taking to make improvements. Just remember, that these are improvements that small businesses are much more likely to ignore.

BSAug 2 2012 06:01 PM

Oh, and one more thing. Walmart has not given $3.9 million in campaign contributions. Unless they are breaking the law, they have not given a dime.

The contributions you speak of come from their employees. That is the reason why a portion give to one set of candiates, and a portion give to another set. Just like any company, Walmart's employees represent a diverse cross-section of the country.

Trying to draw conclusions about Walmart supporting candidates based on their employees' contributions is a wasted effort. A person donates money based on their own personal beliefs, which may or may not have anything to do with their employer's interests.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 2 2012 06:05 PM

BS, I'd like to make a deal with you.

You are a frequent commenter on my blog and those of others at NRDC. I can't imagine that this number is literally correct, but I heard that you posted 200 times in a single month not long ago.

Your opinions are, of course, welcome and entitled to their due weight so long as they are civil, which this one certainly is. But when I publish, you and other readers know my real name, my place of employment, and my credentials, such as they are, for commenting on the subject matter I write about. You and others can take that into account when you consider my opinion, which seems fair and right.

But readers do not have the same opportunity with respect to evaluating your thoughts. The deal I would like to make is: Post under your real name; give us your place of employment, if any; and supply any credentials you would like to add. Readers can decide the extent to which it matters, but at least they will know you somewhat more than they do with an anonymous pair of initials (and, from what I can see behind the curtain, an odd email address composed of random letters and numbers, though perhaps they have meaning I can't discern).

Here's my proposal: If you will do that, I will keep publishing your comments, so long as they are civil. Sound fair?

BSAug 2 2012 09:18 PM

I seriously doubt I've posted 200 times in one month.

The reason I do not say who I work for is because it would be construed as me speaking on behalf of my company. I'll instead tell you that I work for an oil & gas company in the Fortune 100 (but not for "big oil"). I have a BS in Chemical Engineering and an MBA with a finance concentration.

Aside from my financial background, my expertise is in fluid flow, basic thermodynamics, pumping, energy management, and working with utility companies (i.e. I'm an energy manager). By working for a for-profit large company, I've probably done more to reduce carbon emissions than most of the people on the NRDC staff.

Except for the part about the campaign contributions (an understandable mistake that just about everyone makes), I don't have any issues with your article. I just added to it.

I post here mostly to counter the lies and misinformation your colleagues post. And yes, you and I both know that is what they do.

As for your blogs, I think what you do is pretty neat, actually.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 3 2012 02:55 PM

"I've probably done more to reduce carbon emissions than most of the people on the NRDC staff . . .

"I post here mostly to counter the lies and misinformation your colleagues post. And yes, you and I both know that is what they do."

That's a pretty serious charge. Now give us your real name (verifiable), use it each time you post, and I will continue to publish your comments so long as they are civil. My colleagues can make their own decisions about how to handle your posts; my proposal is just made by me for my own blog.

Comments are closed for this post.


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