Wal-Mart’s BIG problem: climate change

Much as I’m an admirer of Wal-Mart’s ambitious sustainability goals, and its efforts to achieve them, there’s a glaring problem with the company’s “progress” to date that can be seen in the chart below.

When it comes to climate change–the defining environmental issue of of our era—Wal-Mart is moving in the wrong direction.

As Gwen Ruta of the Environmental Defense Fund, a Wal-Mart partner, writes in her frank assessment of the company’s 2009 sustainability report, the problem is that all the good things that Wal-Mart is doing–increasing its use of renewable energy, driving efficiency in individual stores, improving its fleet operations and pushing up its recycling rate–are offset by the fact that the company is adding more stores and selling more stuff.

So although WMT’s greenhouse gas emissions per unit of sales is decreasing (the bars on the right), its overall carbon footprint is growing (the bars in the middle).

Wal-Mart executives have a sophisticated response to this; they’ve told me that if the company takes market share away from other, less efficient retailers, it could actually be increasing its own emissions while reducing emissions in the aggregate because people are buying less stuff from its competitors. Certainly that’s possible.

If the earth’s atmosphere could speak, it would tell us that it doesn’t care about efficiency or renewables or recyling–or market share. It cares about absolute emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

The trouble is, Wal-Mart hasn’t figured out how to get bigger and smaller at the same time. Bigger: more revenues and profits. Smaller: a reduced environmental footprint.

This a fundamental problem facing not just Wal-Mart, but all of corporate America. Until we solve it, we’re in trouble.


  1. Perhaps the problem is not getting bigger and smaller at the same time, but the paradigm that says we have to get bigger in the first place.

  2. Nice new look Marc. Still great content.
    Reducing total footprint is at odds with continually growing GDP, output, sales – whatever measure. As green becomes good business are we really ready for a simpler absolutely ‘less is more’ lifestyle? Can we wean ourselves from the constant pursuit of increasing consumption, measuring our economy’s success by growth? Isn’t that how corporations are structured?

  3. This Wal-Mart dilemma exemplifies the problem at large – our insistence on economic growth and our ignorance of the need to curb population growth dwarf our efforts to green up our lives.

  4. This is not a Wal-Mart problem. Any growing company will use more energy and unless there is a magical non-carbon solution, its absolute emissions will go up and up, and up. If Wal-Mart can’t disconnect its growth from emissions who can? Does this, perhaps, point to the stupidity of the current PC thinking on carbon? We should be spending our efforts on invention and adaptation, not deluding ourselves that we can save the world by unplugging our BlackBerry chargers.

  5. Marc,
    I’m not saying this in defense of Wal-Mart, but I think we need to look at the bigger picture. If Wal-Mart has made strides in lowering their CO2/sales, and people are buying more in general, from a CO2 perspective it would seem to be better that they made those increased purchases from a Wal-Mart that has made these CO2 reductions, right?? So, I think there is a degree of truth in Wal-Mart’s response. So, I would stand with the previous comments and your final paragraph that it is not a Wal-Mart problem, it is a consumerism problem. But if the consumerism problem continues to grow, from a CO2 perspective, it is better that they feed the frenzy through an outlet that is reducing the impact in some form.


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