The New York Times
By Claudia H. Deutsch
Officially, Wal-Mart Stores released a “comprehensive report of its sustainability efforts” yesterday. But the much-anticipated document could more accurately be described as a citizenship report.
The report did provide many facts and figures about the progress the company has made since October 2005, when it promised to sharply reduce the environmental effects of its operations and of the products it sells.
But Wal-Mart used sustainability as a catch-all phrase that encompasses areas as disparate as health care plans for employees, charitable giving, diversity and promotion policies, even corporate governance issues like the structure of its board and the way it pays executives. It even listed the number of miles employees said they had walked, swam or biked as part of a Personal Sustainability Project the company introduced last year.
And Wal-Mart detailed savings from sustainability, both to itself in areas like reduced energy use, and to its customers, through $4 prescription drugs and energy savings from compact fluorescent bulbs.
“There is no conflict between our business model of everyday low costs and everyday low prices and being a more sustainable business,” H. Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s chief executive, said in a statement.
Wal-Mart did offer many nuggets that would hearten environmentalists. It said it had increased the energy efficiency of its buildings and its fleet of trucks by 15 percent since 2005. It said it had committed to use solar energy at 22 sites and to increase its use of light-emitting diodes, an energy-efficient lighting technology.
It said it had sold 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs in the 12-month period from Sept. 30 last year. It also said it was helping to conserve an acre of wildlife habitat for every acre it occupied or would develop through 2015. And it said it would reduce the amount of solid waste generated by its stores by 25 percent by next October.
The report also added detail to Wal-Mart’s new program to encourage suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of their products and mentioned the increase in sales of concentrated detergents as an example.
But the report did not appease Wal-mart’s critics.
A coalition of 23 nonprofit groups immediately issued their own “Civil Society Critique,” which said Wal-Mart was doing too little too late.
“Wal-Mart’s dependence on imports and unsustainable factory farming is highly destructive,” said Mark A. Kastel, who spoke for the Cornucopia Institute, one of the counter-report’s sponsors.
Nor did Mr. Scott’s emphasis on cost savings please the group. “Wal-Mart’s “cut prices at all costs” business model is the very essence of the problem,” said David Groves, speaking for another sponsor, the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Other nonprofits were less sharply critical, but still expressed disappointment.
“We’re pleased to see some improvements in the company’s behavior, but we can and should expect more from the world’s largest, most innovative company,” said David Nassar, executive director of Wal-Mart Watch, who dismissed Wal-Mart’s report as a public relations effort.
Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense, also had reservations. While she praised Wal-Mart for “moving in the right direction, and learning as it goes,” she said that many of the report’s contentions were hard to put in context.
For its part, Wal-Mart readily conceded that its sustainability programs are works in progress.
“Our carbon footprint is growing slower, but it is still growing,” Mr. Scott said. “Much work remains to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.”