Have I fallen in love with Walmart?

In 2006, I wrote a cover story for FORTUNE with the headline: Wal-Mart Saves the Planet. Since then, I’ve written dozens of stories about the retail giant. I’ve reported on Walmart’s impact on the gold mining industry (Green Gold in FORTUNE), its efforts to protect child laborers in Uzbekistan and salmon fisherman in Alaska (Walmart: A bully benefactor on Fortune.com), the launch of a path-breaking sustainability index (Inside Walmart’s sustainability index at GreenBiz), LED lights in Walmart parking lots, the company’s CSR reports, etc. I’ve been critical at times–pointing to Walmart’s BIG problem: climate change and writing that Walmart CEO (Mike Duke) has a problem with gays–but most of my coverage of the company’s sustainability effort has been laundatory.

Now here comes Stacy Mitchell, a smart reporter, with a six-part series in Grist called Walmart’s Greenwash: Why the retail giant is still unsustainable. She assails Walmart for promoting suburban sprawl, making only token efforts to buy renewable energy and selling cheap throwaway stuff. She also faults mainstream environmental groups for focusing “on the small bits of good that Walmart could do—reduce PVC in packaging, for example—while ignoring the much larger consequences of its ever-expanding business model.” She also says that she has been “shocked by just how much of a public relations boost the media have given the company and how little public accountability they have demanded in return.”

These are serious criticisms that deserve a responses. Stacy highlights some important points. Fundamentally, though, we disagree about Walmart, and this post (it’s necessarily longer than most) is an attempt to explain why. Some of our differences are probably a result of what psychologists called confirmation bias, which describes the way all of us seek out, sift through and read evidence in ways that confirm our preconceptions. Confirmation bias is a problem in journalism, politics, economics and even in the so-called hard sciences.

Stacy Mitchell

I’m sure that my experience with Walmart has left me vulnerable to confirmation bias. I’ve visited Bentonville, gotten to know executives at the firm, and the company has participated in Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference, which I co-chair;  my career and reputation have been helped by my reporting on the company. I suspect the same is true of Stacy, who wrote a book in 2008 called Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses. She has “advised numerous communities on strategies and policies to limit chain store proliferation and strengthen locally owned businesses,” according to her bio.

So read on (skeptically) as I try to sort through some of the issues she’s raised. [click to continue…]

Exclusive: Wal-Mart’s sustainability index

Wal-Mart will make a big announcement this week: The company, working with consumer-goods manufacturers and a group of universities, will unveil plans to measure the sustainability of every product it sells. In time, sustainability labels could provide us with information about the environmental and social attributes of consumer goods, much as nutrition labels tell us about the content of the foods we eat.

Nutrition Facts Label

I’ve been hearing about Wal-Mart’s sustainability index for about a year, but the company has been reluctant to discuss it. (Uncharacteristically so, in my experience.) Wal-Mart’s new CEO, Mike Duke, will announce the index on Thursday, July 16, at the company’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, before invited suppliers, environmentalists and academics. I’ve been able to piece together the story by talking to Wal-Mart insiders, academics who are working with the company and environmentalists. The Big Money, Slate’s business site, has just published the story  here.

Here’s how the story begins:

PepsiCo buys lots of renewable energy, while a Coca Cola plant recycles plastic bottles. Should environmentalists drink Pepsi or Coke?

Dell is “carbon neutral.” Hewlett Packard says it designs for the environment. Whose laptops are more “green”?

So many choices, so little reliable guidance: Clorox GreenWorks or Seventh Generation? Local or organic strawberries? Paper or plastic? Who’s to say?

Wal-Mart, that’s who. [click to continue…]