New York Times, April 13, 2012
An environmentalist in Bentonville sounds like the premise for a low-budget reality show, but Wal-Mart has been courting environmental groups and seeking their input on its policies in the seven years since it first announced a sustainability program.
The company, the nation’s biggest retailer, has met some environmental goals and missed others. On Monday, it plans to announce that it now reuses or recycles more than 80 percent of the waste produced in its domestic stores and in its other United States operations. That is up from 64 percent as of 2009, but it is short of the zero-waste goal the company hopes to get to.
Before Wal-Mart announced the environmental initiative in 2005, H. Lee Scott, the chief executive, reviewed the legal and public relations problems the company was having. It had paid millions of dollars in fines for violating local pollution laws, and was facing a lawsuit claiming that Wal-Mart discriminated against women. Mr. Scott wondered if behaving differently could enhance the company’s reputation, he told Fortune. That year, Mr. Scott announced a wide-ranging plan to lessen the retailer’s environmental impact. Wal-Mart has issued regular updates on its progress since then.
But some environmental and shop-local groups contend that the company’s business model remains inherently anti-environment.
“Wal-Mart’s price pressure on manufacturers is undermining the durability and quality of products, which has contributed to a sharp increase in how much Americans buy and how much we discard,” said Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “The majority of what the company does is designed to accelerate consumption.”
Vonda Lockwood, senior director of operations who handles the waste program at Wal-Mart, said she had heard the objections. “My question is, ‘So do we do nothing then?’ I feel like we are a retailer, we’re here to be a retailer, and in doing that we’re trying to be good partners as a retailer,” she said. In the report to be released next week, Wal-Mart will describe a mixed degree of progress on the goals Mr. Scott outlined seven years ago. Mr. Scott, who retired in 2009 as chief executive, serves on Wal-Mart’s board of directors.