Last week, Al Gore recently spoke at a meeting of Wal-Mart executives on sustainability. See
Gore and some other leading environmentalists (including Adam Werbach) are really working with Wal-Mart to try to get them to follow through on their environmental commitments. And Wal-Mart’s goals are quite lofty:
“Last October, Scott pledged to transform his sprawling company, which employs 1.8 million people worldwide and ranks No. 2 on the Fortune 500 list, into a lean green machine powered exclusively by renewable energy, producing zero waste, and selling sustainable products … He aims, for example, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at Wal-Mart’s existing stores and distribution centers 20 percent by 2012, and invest $500 million in environmental improvements each year.”
The whole idea of “greening” Wal-Mart is obviously highly controversial, since the very idea of an enormous transnational corporation that ships good all over the world and drives local competitors out of business seems antithetical to the idea of sustainability. But, on the other hand, there is little indication that Wal-Mart is going to go away any time soon, probably not in the next couple of decades that will be crucial to solving the climate problem. And the economies of scale that would come from Wal-Mart moving towards sustainability would be enormous. Wal-Mart’s goal is “to ‘democratize sustainability.’ … to use Wal-Mart’s unparalleled economies of scale to put everything from organic T-shirts to compact fluorescent light bulbs to pesticide-free foods within reach of the masses.” Given the huge volume that Wal-Mart requires, it will be interesting to see to what extent this is possible without corrupting some of the ideals of sustainability. For example, will Wal-Mart really be able to contract with local vendors near its store locations or will it end up shipping in organic produce from New Zealand?
I am extremely interested to see what will happen with this. If Wal-Mart is serious about this, it will dwarf all other attempts at corporate sustainability and probably end up shifting a significant portion of the retail industry along with it. It seems to be a real test of whether or not the current system of “transnational corporations run amok” can manage to fit itself within increasingly pressing environmental constraints.