Immersed as we are these days in discussions of carbon emissions and carbon offsets, food miles and feedback loops, Earth Day has come to feel more and more outmoded, a throwback to an earlier era before melting ice caps and the prospect of the end of life as we know it made the environment no longer a periodic concern but an everyday worry.
Earth Day is no longer ours anyway. That became abundantly clear this year. Corporations have seized Earth Day and turned it into a kind of holiday, which, like all holidays in modern America, affords ample opportunities to peddle more merchandise. Reusable shopping bags, Lexus Hybrid Living Suites, and other "eco-friendly" products are now to Earth Day what new cars are to Presidents Day. The trade journal Advertising Age neatly captured the trend in a recent headline that asked, " Is Earth Day the New Christmas?"
Most of these corporate greenwashing schemes are clumsy and transparent. But one company has developed a far more sophisticated, and ultimately much more dangerous, approach to manipulating environmental sentiment for its own expansion and profit.
Recognizing a way to burnish its tarnished image and lay the groundwork for more growth, Wal-Mart launched a sustainability initiative two years ago, complete with a benchmark measure of its carbon footprint, a handful of long-range promises on energy use and waste, and plenty of marketing.
As I wrote in an article in Grist last year, what makes Wal-Mart’s initiatives more challenging to confront than simple greenwashing is that they have just enough substance to have distracted many people, including a number of leading environmentalists, from the fundamental fact that, as a system of distributing goods to people, big-box retailing is as intrinsically unsustainable as clear-cut logging is as a method of harvesting trees.
The rise of big-box retailers over the last two decades has greatly enlarged the total carbon footprint of the retail sector of our economy. Thanks to chains like Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot, shopping today is vastly more fossil fuel-intensive than it was just twenty years ago.
There are three main sources for this growth in carbon emissions (all documented in much more detail in my book Big-Box Swindle). One is the conversion of tens of thousands of acres of CO2-absorbing fields and forests into big-box stores and parking lots. These massive single-story outlets with their moats of pavement are not only a tremendously inefficient use of land, but a totally unnecessary one, as evidenced by the millions of square feet of idle retail space [pdf] now lurking in dead malls, vacant shopping centers, and empty downtown storefronts.
Another way the big boxes have increased carbon emissions is by destroying local businesses, pushing manufacturing overseas, and replacing these regional networks of production and distribution with a massive global supply chain. Today, most of the products we buy are shipped, trucked, and flown ridiculously long distances. Global transportation of goods is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and no company moves more stuff around the planet than Wal-Mart.
But by far the largest impact big-box retailers have had on carbon emissions has to do with driving. Since 1990, the number of miles that the average American household drives each year for shopping has grown by more than 40 percent. For the country as a whole, that’s an extra 100 billion miles on the road each year and more than 40 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere—all while we’re running our errands.
We’re driving a lot more in general, but our shopping-related driving has grown three times as fast as driving for all other purposes. The reason has everything to do with the rise of the big boxes. Not only have these retailers chosen to locate their stores on the outer fringe, but their aggressive expansion has forced tens of thousands of local stores to close. Instead of having a large number of grocers, hardware stores, and other small-scale businesses, each serving a neighborhood or town center, we now have a smaller number of massive superstores that serve much larger regions. What that means is that most of us have to travel a few miles further to pick up a gallon of milk or a new shirt, and those extra miles add up to a significant increase in carbon emissions.
Not one of these sources of carbon is included in Wal-Mart’s calculation of its carbon footprint. And all of these issues—over-sized stores, long-distance transportation—are fundamental to the company’s business model. The best case scenario for Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiative is to make a highly polluting operation somewhat less so.
But the best case scenario is not what Wal-Mart hopes to achieve. Like everything the company does, its eco-initiatives are designed to facilitate one overriding goal: growth. Improving its image and enlisting the support of prominent environmental groups are key to its expansion strategy. Since Wal-Mart announced its sustainability initiative two years ago, the company has built 285 new stores in the United States and almost 1,000 new stores in other countries. By its own narrow measure, Wal-Mart’s CO2 emissions have gone up 9 percent.
Rather than buying into Wal-Mart’s green program, we as citizens should be setting the sustainability agenda for the retail sector. What would that look like? For starters, more cities and states should enact land use and economic policies that put an end to the construction of big-box stores and sprawling shopping centers. We need to stop subsidizing corporate expansion and instead nurture a new generation of neighborhood businesses. And we need to do our part as shoppers too by avoiding the big chains as much as possible and giving our support instead to local retailers and local producers.
Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.