Will Walmart meet its sustainability goals?

Will Walmart meet its sustainability goals?

Walmart store with wind turbines in Massachusetts

Walmart got plenty of attention in 2010 when it said it would cut 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain by 2015. The goal joined a spate of sustainability targets set as early as 2005, including Walmart's aim to get 100 percent of energy from renewable sources and reduce greenhouse gases at its stores by 20 percent by 2012.

So, two years later, how is it doing with that? Not well, if you believe a report the Institute for Local Self-Reliance released Wednesday.

The report -- called "Walmart's Greenwash" and penned by Stacy Mitchell, who previously also wrote a series of articles on the subject for Grist -- claims that only 2 percent of Walmart's energy came from renewable sources last year. At Walmart's current pace, it would take 300 years to reach its goal of 100 percent renewable energy, Mitchell writes. And while Walmart has reduced the energy use of its stores built before 2005 by an average of 10 percent, eliminating some 1.5 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide annually, its new stores have outweighed those measures, adding at least 3.5 million metric tons of yearly CO2 output, according to the report.

But Walmart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan told me that the report is simply wrong. "It's inaccurate and ill-informed," she said, adding that the 2 percent number is false and that company is still on track to meet its goals. Buchanan didn't disclose how much of its power it now gets from renewables, but said that information will be released as part of the company's global responsibility report slated for April.

Mitchell said her figures were based on the latest data available from Walmart in November, when she did the calculation comparing the amount of electricity Walmart uses in the United States with the amount of electricity its wind and solar projects generate. 

Putting Walmart's Massive Supply Chain to Work

In 2010, when Walmart made its supply-chain-emissions announcement, GreenBiz columnist Marc Gunther argued that it makes sense for the retail giant to focus on its supply chain, which is massive – even compared to Walmart itself – and could cut far more greenhouse gas emissions than Walmart could on its own. (Read more about why Gunther and Mitchell disagree on Walmart here.)

True, Walmart faces significant sustainability challenges: Its booming growth and ever-larger stores make it difficult to reduce its own environmental footprint, even though it has reduced its emissions per sales. But eliminating 20 million metric tons would remove one and a half times the company's estimated carbon footprint growth by 2015, according to Walmart and its partner Environmental Defense Fund.

In other words, by relying on cuts from its suppliers, the company could essentially grow without increasing its overall carbon footprint. As Gunther put it, "You can think of this as the biggest carbon offset in global history."

Can Emissions Cuts Outweigh Walmart's Growth?

But Mitchell contends that the approach is ineffective when weighed against Walmart's business model. Even as Walmart pressures manufacturers to cut their emissions, it also pressures them to cut costs, which has reduced products' quality and durability so that products wear out faster and consumers end up buying more, she said. Americans now go through twice as many items of clothing per year, per person, as in the mid-1990s, she said, and U.S. households generate approximately twice as much trash.

"Walmart is accelerating the cycle of consumption, speeding up how fast products move from factory to shelf to house to landfill," she said. "Even if Walmart does reduce the resources used to make a T-shirt or a television set, those gains will be more than outstripped by growth in the number of T-shirts and TVs we’re consuming. It's one step forward and three steps back from a climate change perspective."

Mitchell also takes issue with Walmart's reporting, which she said significantly understates its emissions by excluding large areas of the company's operations, such as the impact of its new store development.

"Since launching its sustainability campaign in 2005, Walmart has added over 1,100 supercenters in the U.S. alone," she told me. "Most of these stores are sprawling, auto-oriented supercenters built on previously undeveloped land. Walmart does not count the substantial embodied carbon associated with the building materials it uses, or the greenhouse gas impact of converting carbon-absorbing fields and forests into pavement." 

Aside from including its emissions from store development and land use, Mitchell argues that Walmart also should include emissions from consumers driving to its stores.

Walmart's Progress Toward Cutting Carbon

Meanwhile, Walmart says it is making progress toward its big goal of eliminating 20 million tons of greenhouse gases from its supply chain by 2015.

While the company has only eliminated 88,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases so far, for example, it already has identified projects with the potential to eliminate an additional 16 million metric tons in the next few years, Buchanan said. It takes more time to go after the bigger projects, so many have yet to be completed, but Walmart has done a lot of the ground work, she explained, and still believes it can eliminate 20 million tons of carbon.

The Walmart team, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, the Carbon Disclosure Project and Clear Carbon by Deloitte, has evaluated many projects so that it can go after the biggest, fastest and most economical first, she said. The team also has developed an online portal to encourage thousands of suppliers to get involved in reducing greenhouse gases and to submit their completed projects for review, she added.

"Obviously, we've set a huge aspirational goal, and – since the goal was set – we've put our nose to the ground to figure out how to achieve it: We've been working to identify these projects and working with our partners to evaluate these projects in order to go for the low-hanging fruit and figure out the bigger projects," she said.

Walmart plans to disclose more information about its sustainability targets when it releases its global responsibility report in April, according to Buchanan. "We are enthusiastically committed to our formidable goal of eliminating 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from Walmart’s global supply chain by the end of 2015, and have taken the approach to generate as much positive impact as possible as quickly as possible," she said.

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Photo courtesty of Walmart.