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In love with WalMart?

In his latest blog post, veteran journalist Marc Gunther asks Have I fallen in love with Walmart? It's a long, thougthtful piece, responding to an even longer piece in Grist.

"I’ve written dozens of stories about the retail giant, Gunther writes. "...I’ve been critical at times...but most of my coverage of the company’s sustainability effort has been laundatory [sic]."

Now here comes Stacy Mitchell, a smart reporter, with a six-part series in Grist called Walmart’s Greenwash: Why the retail giant is still unsustainable. She assails Walmart for promoting suburban sprawl, making only token efforts to buy renewable energy and selling cheap throwaway stuff. She also faults mainstream environmental groups for focusing “on the small bits of good that Walmart could do—reduce PVC in packaging, for example—while ignoring the much larger consequences of its ever-expanding business model.” She also says that she has been “shocked by just how much of a public relations boost the media have given the company and how little public accountability they have demanded in return.”

Here's the comment I posted at Marc's site:

Thanks for this piece, Marc, and the thoughtful perspective. WalMart’s a mixed bag, to be sure (ain’t we all!), but it’s just way too easy to criticize, and damn hard to transform a large organization, and to get everything right. (Once again, who of any of us has?)

I completely agree with you re “The Sustainability Index” — WalMart’s “100% renewable energy/zero waste/only sustainable products” declaration has probably generated more sustainability awareness in businesses around the country than any single from regulators or NGOs. We’ve seen an immediate and profound impact on the flow of companies that come to us at Natural Logic, and the kind of assistance they’re looking for. WalMart deserves ample credit for moving the agenda at tens of thousands of companies.

But I strongly disagree with you about “Cheap Stuff.” As Dave Gustershaw of Interface is fond of pointing out, each additional kilogram of stuff moved an additional kilometer means (all things being equal) more environmental impact, so the challenge of “sustainable consumption” — and the related challenge of “how can companies make more money selling less stuff?” — are on a very short list of questions at the heart of the matter. (The others: getting the prices right, and escaping the trap of short-term-ism — but more on those another time.) I just don’t buy it when companies say “we’re just responding to consumer demand” and then spend billions to _shape_ that consumer demand.

By the way, why would buying solar “put the company at a competitive disadvantage” when it doesn’t do that for “Kohl’s, Whole Foods Markets, Starbucks and Staples”?

PS: WalMart isn’t us. The “us” who shop there (or don’t) do have substantial impact on what they do, and yes, markets do move business decisions, but it feels just a wee bit too simplistic, in these days of TARP x 11, to suggest that “we’re all one.”

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