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The Washington Post reports this morning that two years after Wal-Mart set out ambitious goals for turning itself into an environmentally friendly business – an effort that was designed to both improve its image and, in the long-term, its bottom line – the company’s mission is being embraced by a number of companies that believe they can help the retailer reach its goals.

Noting that Fayetteville, Arkansas, has become a kind of hub, the Post writes, “A wave of start-ups developing the technology to help suppliers prove their green credentials has swept into this sleepy college town, half an hour from the company's headquarters in Bentonville … It may seem an unlikely place for a green revolution, far from such traditional environmental strongholds as Portland and Seattle, but local officials hope Fayetteville will become to sustainability what Detroit is to the automotive industry and the Silicon Valley is to technology. In fact, they've coined their own term for the vision: Green Valley.”

In essence, Wal-Mart is having the same effect on ecology-driven companies as it has had on CPG companies, many of which have opened offices in Arkansas to be more responsive to the world’s largest retailer, and in the process creating an enormous boom in the area’s economy. It seems possible, even likely, that Wal-Mart could have the same impact when it comes to sustainability – not just affecting its own universe, but a broader number of companies and communities.

Ironically, the Post piece appears just as a report is being circulated by 23 different environmental, farm, labor, and human rights groups, claiming that despite the rhetoric and publicity, Wal-Mart’s business model is “inherently unsustainable.”

“When you look at the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by Wal-Mart, it becomes impossible to take the company’s claims to reduce global warming as anything more than hot air,” the report says, noting that “Wal-Mart’s claim that it will cut 20 million tons of greenhouse gases annually would be admirable if it weren’t for the fact that the company publicly acknowledged in 2006 that its global operations created 220 million tons of greenhouse gases every year. That’s more than 40 times the emissions the company says it would like to eliminate.”

And, the report says that “Wal-Mart is not only using an astronomically unsustainable amount of fuel in importing cheap goods from China into the US and Mexico, where it is a leading retailer, but it is also undermining local economies by refusing to source from local producers who are being cut out of the market.”

According to the report, participating organizations include “ActionAid International USA, Agribusiness Accountability Initiative, American Independent Business Alliance, American Rights at Work, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Centro de Investigación Laboral y Asesoria Sindical (CILAS), The Cornucopia Institute, Corporate Ethics International, Dogwood Alliance, Environmental Investigation Agency, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Good Jobs First, Global Exchange, Gulf Restoration Network, Institute for Policy Studies, International Labor Rights Forum, Mangrove Action Project, STITCH,, Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now (WARN), and Washington State Jobs with Justice.
KC's View:
I’m not smart enough to know whether Wal-Mart is being sincere or manipulative when it comes to environmental initiatives. My first instinct, despite my innate cynicism, is to give them the benefit of the doubt … and I think it is fair to say that this probably is not an instinct shared by many of the organizations participating in the report. Though they could be right and I could be wrong.

This much I am sure of. These are extremely complicated issues, and most people don’t have any idea what a carbon footprint is, much less what they should do to reduce the impact they have on the environment. And even when they do know – the move to reusable canvas bags and away from both plastic and paper sacks, for example – making that change is extremely difficult even for a single consumer who has been doing things one way for a long, long time. Imagine, then, how hard it is for companies that have built themselves to operate in very specific ways, and now find that they have to undergo internal revolutions to meet certain goals.

That said, a little revolution is good for the soul. Even the corporate soul.