Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wal-Mart Celebrates Thanksgiving by Sourcing Local Food, Supporting Hunger-Relief, and Buying Wind Power

The story below is taken from the CSRWire newsletter, and again, as with my previous post regarding Coke & Coca-Cola Enterprises, seems appropriate for me to notice as I heard Wal-Mart's VP of Sustainability, Matt Kistler at the Net Impact Conference a few weeks ago.

One of my readers (thank you Dave!) took me to task for being too anti-Wal-mart in a
previous post. I suppose I was pounding the cliche drum of suspicion about their activities; clearly looking at the glass as half-empty. This little news blurb illustrates some of the things Wal-Mart is doing that can be viewed as positive. I italicized the section on local food sourcing as I have become quite interested in this topic and its influence on local economies, in fact, I am doing my BGI marketing course work in association with Green City Growers here in Boston (they come to your house and build you a backyard farm and maintain it for you).

Last week's sudden news of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott handing the reins over in February 2009 to Mike Duke, the company's head of international operations, raised questions on how the new leader will steer the discounter's sustainability initiatives, which have met praise and skepticism. Duke has gone on record saying that "Wal-Mart and our supplier partners must operate in a more socially and environmentally responsible way wherever we do business ... we at Wal-Mart are also committed to being a leader on sustainability." Using its vast size to influence entire supply chains to its advantage - the very practice that skeptics criticize as "bullying" - Wal-Mart is now leveraging this muscle to shift markets toward greener practices.

Seizing on the spirit of Thanksgiving, for example, Wal-Mart highlights its increasing local produce sourcing - its buyers use "Food Mile Calculators" to cut down on carbon emissions while also supporting the communities in which the company operates. Wal-Mart customers can buy local pumpkins in more than half the US states, local apples in more than a third, and local sweet potatoes in a seventh. Skeptics such as Grist Columnist Tom Philpott point out that Wal-Mart's definition of "local" may include entire states: "That definition might shine in smallish states like, say, Vermont. In large states like Texas and California, it begins to lose luster." That said, Philpott welcomes Wal-Mart's influence if it leads to a regional food distribution system that supports mid-sized farms, instead of continuing to industrialize the food chain.

In this holiday of food abundance, Wal-Mart is also using its size to support America’s hungry. The company is donating some 90 million pounds of food annually - about 70 million meals - to the largest hunger-relief charity, Feeding America, by the end of 2009. On top of this, the Wal-Mart Foundation is donating $2.5 million to help Feeding America buy 20 new refrigerated trucks for transporting food to the agency's food pantries and soup kitchens, which are experiencing between 15 and 50 percent rises in demand for food.

Perhaps most significantly, Wal-Mart is continuing its march toward the goal of being powered completely with renewable energy by sourcing up to 15 percent of electricity needs in its 360 stores in Texas with wind power. The estimated 226 million kilowatt-hours of renewable power produced will keep over 139,000 metric tons of global warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year - the equivalent of taking about 25,000 cars off the road. It also creates green jobs for supplier Duke Energy to build its new wind farm in Notrees, Texas. And here again, Wal-Mart's action creates cascading impacts by boosting the clean energy market and setting an example for other companies to follow in committing to renewables.

Wal-Mart's biggest challenge is to reconcile its continuing growth with its sustainability intentions. Its overall direct emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent (which factors other greenhouse gas emissions in addition to CO2) rose more than 100,000 metric tonnes from 2006 to 2007, according to its Carbon Disclosure Project response. Wal-Mart is working very hard to deliver on Lee Scott's assertion last year in the company's 2007 Sustainability Progress report of "being a more sustainable business." What remains to be seen is if Wal-Mart can remove the "more," to become a truly sustainable company.

Disclosure: CWRwire contributing writer Bill Baue wrote Wal-Mart's Sustainability Progress report in 2007.
I appreciate the conundrum acknowledged at the close of the article; How does Wal-Mart reconcile its continuing growth with its sustainability intentions?

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