You can't miss it. Next door to a fenced-in train yard and a narrow patch of cookie-cutter townhouses on the far western reaches of St. Clair sits a giant grey, red and blue Wal-Mart. For all intents and purposes it's just like every other big-box megastore of the same name, except for one distinguishing factor. It's powered by green energy. There are no solar panels mounted on the roof or wind turbines in the parking lot, but according to a recent corporate announcement, this Wal-Mart is one of four stores to hop on the rock 'n' roll trend of going carbon-neutral. Just as the Stones and Pearl Jam did for their tours, Wal-Mart is aiming to offset the stores' greenhouse gas emissions by buying an equivalent amount of renewable energy.
It's a mouthful, but in fact the bagging of 39,000 megawatts over three years makes the transaction the largest commercial purchase of green power in Ontario's, and likely Canada's, history. No matter how you feel toward the mega-mart, it's impressive, especially when you tack it onto an extensive list of green initiatives announced six months ago in the U.S. Could the notorious small-town killer, sprawl-fueller and Third World squeezer's eco reinvention be a sign of an environmental consciousness reborn? Or is this merely a really expensive indication that eco posing has hit the big time?
No matter how you package it, the greening of Wal-Mart is hard to swallow. Eco-heads and journalists were shocked this past October when CEO Lee Scott declared his newfound commitment to the planet. Targets were set out to increase the company fleet's fuel efficiency by 25 per cent, reduce solid waste by 25 per cent and cut greenhouse gases at existing stores by 20 per cent, all within three to seven years. Okay, so the targets don't apply to stores outside the U.S., but reps for Wal-Mart's Canadian headquarters promise that a whack of sustainable initiatives are on the way. In the meantime, Wal-Mart Canada spokesperson Christi Gallagher says $600,000 has been spent on a green grant program and that 25 per cent of BC stores are already offsetting their energy needs with renewable energy.
Says Gallagher, "We recognize the fact that we have the power to make some significant positive changes to our environment, and that's why we're taking this leadership position."
But this is Wal-Mart, a company known for steadfastly ignoring activist pressure and resisting change like no other. Could its acceptance of the need to green possibly signal the second coming of the notoriously deflated environmental movement?
Maybe so, says Sierra Club's Elizabeth May. "This reminds me very much of the early 80s, when you began to see companies greening themselves because the public demand for action was growing. I take it as a good-news signal, the same way I do Vanity Fair profiling the environment this month. We're very, very close to the point where even George Bush can't hold back the tide demanding action."
Still, you have to wonder if this time around, it's just too easy being green. Guilt-racked travellers can go online and buy energy-efficient light bulbs for Third Worlders to offset their air emissions. Rock bands are paying to have trees planted to compensate for the greenhouse gases created by albums and tours. And Wal-Mart can call up Bullfrog, a renewable energy company, and ask for a stack of megawatts in their name. It's easy, it's apolitical, it's cost-effective and it buys a hell of a lot of good PR.
Take that Wal-Mart energy purchase, for instance. Bill Hulet, at the helm of a Charter challenge trying to block Wal-Mart from building beside a Jesuit retreat and organic farm in Guelph, wonders what exactly is being offset by the megawatts.
"Have they dealt with the embedded energy of their store, or the greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation networks? Are they defining their fossil fuel use by the people who drive to their stores?"
The answer? No. The Bullfrog purchase accounts for the electricity usage in each of the four participating stores. That means the energy used to power lights, cash registers and fridges. Nothing more, nothing less.
When asked about energy conservation measures at the Bullfrogged stores, NOW's told nothing has been announced yet. Although they're in the process of retrofitting the bulbs. Oh yes, and last year during the summer's power shortage, they dimmed lighting by one-third. "Is this an ongoing thing?" Silence.
You may want to scream "greenwash," but Brian Milani, coordinator of York University's business and environment program, urges a more measured view.
"Let them greenwash as long as they are actually doing something. I think it's way more productive to be raising the ante, raising standards, so that whether Wal-Mart wants to be more green or just look more green, they have to improve."
No matter what, Milani, the co-founder of the T.O. branch of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (one of Wal-Mart's original nemeses), says the company's eco moves are "an indication of sustainability issues penetrating the mainstream."
Bullfrog president Tom Heintzman agrees. He also believes Wal-Mart's clout can push the movement even further. "Wal-Mart has the reputation of a company that is about as fiscally conscious as you can get. If somebody this fiscally aware can see the merits in doing this, I think that sends a strong message to the marketplace."
Nonetheless, it's a hard moment to celebrate when greening the mainstream means, for instance, that Wal-Mart has become the biggest retailer of organic milk in the U.S., and everyday low prices on vast quantities of organic dairy are pressuring farmers to cut costs and production times by keeping cows locked up indoors.
As well, there's no denying that our growing environmental awareness is squeezing out global labour con-sciousness and diverting attention from the company's infamous rights record. Sure, Wal-Mart's child labour bust fiasco in Bangladesh in December made news after a French radio exposé, but unless you're chaining eight-year-old workers to their sewing machines, labour abuses are old news. Even sweatshop-free-emblazoned American Apparel has yanked the term from its marketing campaigns, calling it passé.
Wal-Mart has recently thrown a few crumbs to the American labour scene by extending health insurance to the children of part-time workers and promising to support local businesses, including its competitors. But it's made no announcement of schemes to help its employees in China, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Nor was there any word about reversing Wal-Mart'sworldwide anti-union stance.
Says the Maquila Solidarity Network's Bob Jeffcott, "Wal-Mart puts on its smiley face when it talks about the environment. What's missing is an honest admission that it shares responsibility for worker rights abuses in its thousands of supply factories around the world." Not to mention culpability for lowering the price of labour on a global scale and effectively creating assembly lines on speed.
Milani says reform of the labour-resource relationship has to occur to bring about a truly green economy. After all, underpaying workers leads to undervalued resources (marked down where the lowest price is the law) that in turn feed production-consumption loops the planet just can't sustain. As it stands, we're shopping till the planet drops, for ever cheaper goods.
For Wal-Mart to reach a deeper shade of green, Milani says it would have to decentralize, encourage local production for local consumption and start redesigning job structures for higher skills and wages.
In effect, Milani says, "the greenest thing for it to do would be to stop being Wal-Mart."