My editorial work keeps me hopping, so I’m a bit late getting started on reporting about my trip last week to Bentonville, Arkansas, for Wal-Mart’s annual Media Day and Shareholders’ Meeting. As always, it was a whirlwind of activity combining trips to company stores in the area, press meetings with company executives, and a little entertainment thrown in. I skipped the Carrie Underwood/Keith Urban concert Thursday night, but did see Joss Stone, Jennifer Hudson and David Cook perform early Friday morning… with Queen Latifah handling the MC duties.
Yes, Wal-Mart does a fantastic job entertaining the troops, but my real interest was in further news on company sustainability initiatives. Over the next week or so, I’ll be reporting on those. Today, I just wanted to provide some initial thoughts, and perhaps get the conversation going.
In case you haven’t noticed, the economy’s in a bit of slump… and that means more people are turning to discount retailers for their basic needs and luxuries. Sales figures are up for the company, and all of the executives that spoke at various portions of the media conference noted the company’s founding value of saving people money. At some points, I began to wonder just a bit if the much-heralded sustainability initiatives of the past few years were taking a back seat to it’s ability to provide goods (and services) at low prices.
Is “Save Money. Live Better” just a marketing slogan, or is it, as company executives claimed, a restatement of the company’s mission? That’s a question I want to explore as I look back on last week’s event. Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more impressed by Wal-Mart’s transformation. As I note in the headline, though, an influx of customers because of tighter pocketbooks really does mean it’s crunch time for the company. It might be easy to forsake some of the promises made about doing business more sustainably. Yet, the message was definitely there: executives from around the world almost always included sustainability initiatives in their presentations (and our press packages came in Wal-Mart reusable shopping bags…with a bottle of concentrated laundry detergent!).
Were these just words? I’ll let you judge for yourself as a I present some of the stories I heard. Obviously, at the Shareholders Meeting, executives had a friendly audience. Still, when I talked to an associate walking into the meeting, and asked her if she’d undertaken a “personal sustainability project,” she not only told me about her efforts to switch to CFLS and recycle, but also her pride in the company’s movement in this direction. It’s the ripple effect that still gets me: Wal-Mart can make greener consumer choices the norm by setting standards for suppliers; it can also educate consumers and shareholders at a massive level. It’s easy to focus on what the company’s done wrong… I still think we’ve got reasons to be hopeful that they’re moving in some really positive directions.
I can’t wait to read more, Jeff. I like how you have a positive attitude toward giving Walmart’s green initiatives a chance.
What was the country of origin of the reusable shopping bags that you received? Most likely it was one of those located in what was recently called the Third World, but now is referred to as one of the Developing Nations. Not to take a swipe at the hard working people in those developing nations, but most of those countries have abysmal environmental standards and track records.
I support reciprocal free trade agreements. Unfortunately, most of the modern agreements allow our trade partners to impose tariffs on US goods entering their countries, but removes tariffs from foreign goods coming into the US. Ergo, the playing field is dramatically skewed. Not only do domestic producers struggle unjustly to compete vis-a-vis the tariff system, but they have to produce goods in such a manner as to meet all of the US’s prohibitive environmental regulations. US producers also have to provide safe working environments, competitive wages and a host of other benefits to its employees that our partners can ignore. If you consider the countries of origin of most of the goods that sit upon the shelves of your favorite mega-retailer, is it any wonder how few read “Made in USA”? How will a mega-retailer’s greening of its domestic business practices really impact global change when all that stuff is produced on a alanted, non-green playing field?
And I don’t want to lay to much blame at the door of the retailer. To borrow from Johan Goldberg, businesses are profit driven and opportunistic in nature. If they see a way to expand and satisfy their customer base, they will do what it takes whether it be green, traded fairly, etc.
Thanks, Levi! I think we have to give them a chance… they could do (and, they would probably argue, have done) a lot of good in terms of changing retail, and making sustainability accessible to people who really aren’t interested in our arguments…
Justin Van Kleeck
Jeff, I do not envy you the whirlwind of “Media Day” at Wal-Mart. Just the thought gives me nightmares….
More importantly, though, I agree with you about feeling hopeful when it comes to Wal-Mart (and other superstores) going green. We environmentalists would do well to remember that we are still the *minority* in the marketplace and in the populus at large. Because Wal-Mart et al. bring in such a broad spectrum of folks–from the bottom to the top of the income ladder–they have the opportunity to expose lots of otherwise unaware people to susatainable products *and* sustainable living in general. Even more crucial for those on a budget, they make those products available at more affordable prices.
So the idealist sitting on my right shoulder cringes and wails when I think of promoting the patronage of Wal-Mart et al. But then the pragmatist on my left shoulder fires back and expresses a bit of pleasure to know that someone somewhere may be changing to a CFL, for example, *only* because it was to be found (and purchased!) at a Wal-Mart. Unfortunately things cannot be simply black and white…or green.
First off, I’ll point out that Wal-Mart will probably pursue a portfolio approach that combines cheap and green, expensive and green, cheap and not-green. They will then see what’s selling and move in that direction. They are a business and they are devoted to volume.
That said, I want to respond to “Unfortunately, most of the modern agreements allow our trade partners to impose tariffs on US goods entering their countries, but removes tariffs from foreign goods coming into the US.”
This is basically BS. Most bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements are about lowering barriers to US EXPORTS — that’s because they are driven by the agenda of US businesses. Lower US tariffs would be great (for consumers), but that’s not how it works.
“This is basically BS.” Really?
Maybe there are cases where the intent is to increase US exports, but you would be hard pressed to find too many people who consider NAFTA and GATT to be shining examples of successfully getting US goods into foreign markets? They are both highly publicized examples of trade initiatives that did not perform as per your argument. Many even view LOST as a potential affront to national sovereignty.
Anyway, limiting the discussion to the mega-store phenomenom (with the exception of groceries), is not the proof of a disproportionate trade agreement easily evidenced by reading the labels on the goods available? Now, I will give you that the parent companies producing many of these items may have domestic origins, but the outsourcing of the work to factories that do not have to adhere to US standards was my basis for questioning the mega-retailers’ commitments to green and social issues. It would be extremely easy to market “green” goods produced in polluting regions.
BTW, my last and your first paragraph above seem to agree completely. Take care.
I think its probably going to work out well. I know that whenever we have needed CFL’s for any place – we have went to walmart to get them – because they are the cheapest I have seen anywhere else.
Maria Surma Manka
Great post Jeff – I’m looking forward to reading more about your travels and conversations.