Can big-box stores do big things for our environment? We tend to bristle at Walmart’s sheer immensity and its domination of local economies. But on the environmental front, the company claims that the “size and scale” of its operation can be wielded to drive green-energy development—saying that slapping solar panels on hundreds of supercenter rooftops could add up to some serious juice. But environmentalists warn that, despite Walmart’s potential big green footprint, its “green growth” business model prioritizes profits over the environment, the same way its mass retail model pushes low prices at the expense of workers.
Walmart recently set a target of transitioning to a 100 percent renewable energy supply, primarily through improvements in energy efficiency, and through wind, solar and other clean-energy projects, attaining “the production or procurement of 7 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy globally” by the end of 2020. However, a study by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) finds that Walmart’s green agenda is blighted by ongoing reliance on dirty fuels. According to ILSR’s analysis, “Walmart’s U.S. operations use nearly six times the amount of electricity as the entire U.S. auto industry. The operations use more than 4.2 million tons of coal each year, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the company’s total emissions from U.S. electricity use.”
Since Walmart launched its push for renewables in 2005, its carbon emissions have grown 14 percent; its renewable power usage actually peaked in 2011 and then slid back. So despite mounting international pressure to curb carbon consumption, Walmart has actually pulled back from its earlier promises to lead the retail industry in sustainable business practices.
The ILSR argues that in terms of converting incrementally to renewable energy sources, Walmart lags behind other major retailers, including Kohls and McDonald’s. Staples US, for example, claims that it has “increased…green power purchases to cover 100 percent of our U.S. electricity needs.” Though it’s hard to make a direct comparison, Walmart’s mammoth retail operations seem far more carbon intensive.
According to Walmart spokesperson Tara Greco, “In the U.S., as of 2013, Walmart-driven renewable energy projects provided three percent of our buildings’ annual electricity needs, and the grid provided another 11 percent for a total of 14 percent renewable electricity in the U.S.” Globally, Walmart reports that about 19 percent of energy use in its buildings comes from renewable sources, primarily wind power.
Walmart’s reliance on coal-based power not only drives up carbon emissions but also results in localized air and water pollution. Toxics emanating from coal-fired power plants disproportionately hurt the environmental health of poor communities of color, who also happen to be a target customer base for Walmart.