Wal-Mart, Sustainability and the Line

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and as the days pass, it grows in relevance. Wal-Mart, the purveyor of everything cheap, disposable and quick, has taken major steps in the the last three years to green their business practices and make their business more sustainable.

It all began three years ago when Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott presented the world with his 21st Century Leadership speech, setting the ambitious goals of all renewable energy, zero waste, and sustainable products.

Since then Wal-Mart has instituted some of the following sustainable practices:

  • This week they unveiled a new jewelry line (called “Love, Earth”), the first to be completely traceable from mine to store
  • Last year Wal-Mart joined Oxfam America’s No Dirty Gold campaign, and going forward, the company’s Sustainable Value Network seeks to eventually hold all of the gold, silver, and diamonds sold to Wal-Mart’s sustainability standards, which include environmental, human rights, and community criteria.
  • Wal-Mart is now the largest seller of organic produce in the word

Now I don’t shop at Wal-Mart but the few times I have been there, I’ve noticed some very obvious improvements they could make in their business practices:

  • No more plastic bags: if China can ban them, why the heck couldn’t Wal-Mart? Or at least make them biodegradable.
  • Printing on recycled paper and using waterless printing and soy-based inks: Just think of all the trees that could be saved if every company instituted this change.
  • Bio-degradable coffee cups, plates, utensils, etc. for their “cafes”: This idea isn’t so new any more, there are so many people doing it, why isn’t Wal-Mart?

So the question is, is it enough for a company to just do something when it comes to developing more sustainable business practices?

Wal-Mart five years ago was doing a lot more damage to the environment than they are today, so shouldn’t we applaud them for that? Or are companies required to make a 100% commitment or a 75% commitment or some other % commitment to developing sustainable practices before they get the obligatory pat on the sustainable back? If that is the case then Wal-Mart has to cease existing in its form today and instead exclusively start selling organic fava beans. Obviously that isn’t reasonable or realistic, so what is the line where a company’s sustainability practices are deemed good enough? Is it even possible to be 100% sustainable? I’d argue not.

This question is going to become more and more relevant as the “green” trend grows. The hotter “green” gets, the more companies that will jump on the bandwagon (not that many haven’t already) and use their marketing muscles to promote themselves as “green”. If there are no standards to meet, what makes what they are saying false advertising? How can we call them on it? What prevents “green” from becoming the next flash in the pan like “low fat”, “trans-fat free” or my new favourite marketing I-have-no-real-meaning-buzzword, “now with anti-oxidants”? If there is no line in the sand or standard to meet, how do consumers determine the charlatans from the treehuggers? Will the value of the word not just degrade into nothing? How much value do you now place on foods marked “Diet” or “Light” versus, say, seven years ago?

Wal-Mart, Sustainability and the Line

By Tara Joyce Time to Read: 2 min