Walmart seems to be the store we all love to hate. We blame it for a variety of ills, including predatory pricing that undercuts locally-owned stores, being strongly anti-union, and paying its employees just enough to keep working but not enough to do so without public assistance. Walmart has also been accused of being complicit in stocking a vast array of cheap disposable goods made in sweatshops that clog our waste stream and wreak havoc on our environment, while making huge profits that benefit shareholders – to the detriment of the local economy.
But about 10 years ago, this retail giant made a sustainability pledge that promised to change at least some of the company’s image, and to clean up its operations, environmentally-speaking. In 2005, then-CEO Lee Scott stated that the company would shift over to using 100% renewable power, and would become a leader in sustainability issues.
This news was widely heralded as a positive step for Walmart, and filled countless green news reports, but a decade later, it appears as if Walmart’s sustainability pledge was more greenwashing than anything else, and the company’s coal consumption and carbon emissions have actually risen, not fallen, according to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).
The report, titled Walmart’s Dirty Energy Secret: How the Company’s Slick Greenwashing Hides Its Massive Coal Consumption, found that the company is “one of the nation’s largest users of coal-fired electricity,” and that Walmart’s dependence on dirty power “pumps nearly 8 million metric tons of carbon pollution into the air each year.” While the company has made a little headway toward its pledge with renewable energy projects, such as rooftop solar, by and large Walmart’s operations continue to be powered by coal, and its clean energy initiatives provide just 3% of the company’s US electrical consumption.
“Walmart has made remarkably little progress in moving to renewable energy, while other national retailers and many small businesses are now generating a sizable share of their power from clean sources. Despite making a public commitment to sustainability nine years ago, Walmart still favors dirty coal-generated electricity over solar and wind, because the company insists on using the cheapest power it can find.” – Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher at ILSR and co-author of the new report
The report claims that Walmart’s renewable energy projects are “far too small relative to the huge scale of Walmart’s operations” and that the company’s clean energy deployment is only in “relatively few” states, with about three-fourths of its solar installations in just two states (and more than half are just in California), and none at all in “large swaths of the country, including including many of the most coal-intensive states — the states that would benefit most from clean power.”
“The scope of Walmart’s coal consumption is staggering — as is its refusal to forego even a penny of short-term profits to invest in a meaningful shift to renewable power, and its financial backing of lawmakers who protect fossil fuel interests and block action on climate pollution.”
According to the report, one major factor in Walmart’s dirty power dependence is right in line with the philosophy behind the rest of the company’s operations, which puts a lot of emphasis on low prices. If solar or wind or any other renewable energy source costs more than grid electricity, then the company sticks with its dirty power, and if the cost is lower than coal, the company chooses alternative energy instead.
“Walmart uses the cheapest power it can get. In limited circumstances, on the margins of the company’s power needs, that means renewable energy. In California, where electricity rates are almost twice the national average, Walmart’s solar and fuel cell contracts are cheaper than relying exclusively on the grid.”
This dependence on vast amounts of coal-fired power, on top of adding to our climate woes and air pollution issues, also has an impact on the communities surrounding coal plants, thanks to the insidious effects of coal ash (the leftover material from burning coal as a fuel) in disposal ponds, which often leak slowly into groundwater or which can “spill” into nearby rivers or lakes, polluting a natural resource that we all rely on.
Aside from the company’s own dubious clean energy and sustainability programs, Walmart also happens to be one of the companies pouring millions of dollars into anti-solar groups, which are bankrolling the push to roll back rooftop solar and other clean energy policies on both the state and national levels.
Image: Mike Mozart
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