Suppose you run one of the most environmentally offensive companies on the planet. Would you then expect people to be impressed that you drive an eco-friendly car? Last week Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott told the Chicago Tribune that he was selling his Volkswagen Bug and that he now drives a Lexus hybrid. “I love the idea of emission control,” he effused, “and I just hate dependence on foreign oil.”
Well, it’s helpful of Scott to do his part, even if he must explain himself in such a xenophobic manner. But Wal-Mart contributes to sprawl, pollution (by causing traffic problems), terrible land-use patterns and — speaking of “foreign oil” –overuse of cars (as we kill Main Street and replace it with big box stores, we drive more and walk less). Wal-Mart also, quite often, turns attractive, populous ecosystems into big ugly parking lots. Perhaps an even more profound environmental objection–and one that deserves more attention — is the way cheap, poorly made goods of the sort sold at Wal-Mart contribute to a culture of disposability that threatens to bury us in garbage. (For more on that problem, check out Heather Rogers’s excellent forthcoming book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, which The New Press will publish in October.) The Tribune shrewdly noted that Scott has “more than a personal interest” in the energy issue, since, many analysts believe, high gas prices are affecting Wal-Mart’s profits by squeezing its low-income shoppers.
But some of Wal-Mart’s newest customers aren’t affected by gas prices: They don’t drive cars. Perhaps hoping to distract attention from controversy over its urban expansion, Wal-Mart finally found an unspoiled piece of rural America, opening a Supercenter in Middlefield, Ohio, catering specifically to the local Amish community, with eighty-four spots to hitch your horse and buggy. Now that’s an environmentally sound vehicle.