Wal-Mart’s ‘Organic Push’ All Over the News

While I’d love to believe that all of these papers and other news outlets are reading sustainablog, I’m guessing that they probably just caught on to the news of Wal-Mart’s big push into the organic market. Among the more interesting articles I found on this development is this one from the AP (via Canada’s DailyBulletin.com) that tries to look at the big picture of Wal-Mart’s recent moves in more sustainable directions. Interestingly, one of Wal-Mart’s business practices that has received a lot of criticism (most of it justified), it’s strong-arming of suppliers, may be the thing that really changes the larger retail market:

What makes Wal-Mart’s efforts unique, sustainability experts say, is the retailer’s sheer size and the power that gives it in relations with suppliers. Wal-Mart works closely with suppliers to shape their goods, if they want them on the shelves of Wal-Mart’s nearly 4,000 U.S. stores and over 2,200 internationally.

“They have huge potential because it’s not just Wal-Mart we’re talking about, it’s their entire supply chain,” said Jeff Erikson, U.S. director of London-based consulting and research group SustainAbility. The group says it does not do any consulting work for Wal-Mart.

Erikson said Wal-Mart could bring the same pressure it has exerted over the years on prices and apply that to pushing manufacturers and competitors to adopt more sustainable business practices and larger organic offerings.

“We love to see companies like Wal-Mart taking a big step and making pronouncements as they have because their tentacles are so large,” Erikson said.

Even Carl Pope seems cautiously optimistic:

Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, who is a board member of the union-backed group Wal-Mart Watch that criticizes the retailer, said it is too soon to tell if Wal-Mart will deliver but that the impact could be good for the environment.

“I think the direction they’ve set is a positive direction. The question is, `Are they are going to go there strongly enough?”‘ Pope said.

Of course, not everyone’s celebrating this move, particularly local stores that specialize in organic produce. From The Durango Herald:

Durango health-food stores viewed Wal-Mart’s plan to enter the organic food business as a mixed bag, saying eating better is always good, but the retail giant’s reputation still taints the effort.

“It might help get more people eating organic, but I also think it’s bad for companies like us,” said Beth Ruybal, manager at Nature’s Oasis. She said local businesses are already competing with larger health food chains for distributors.

And it’s not out of any concern for the environment or the consumer that Wal-Mart is interested in selling organic products, she said. The company just knows there is a profit to be made.

“They’ve put everybody else out of business and they haven’t gone for us yet,” she said….

At Durango Natural Foods, manager Anna Ward said it was good that organic foods are becoming mainstream, but she was concerned about standards dropping as larger retailers like Wal-Mart enter the market.

And she doubted that Wal-Mart is going to contract with small organic farmers, especially local farmers. They’re more likely to contract with large organic farmers, she said.

Still, if Wal-Mart’s participation in the organic movement signifies a national trend, it’s hard to knock it, she said.

If the public can support the organic movement as a whole – “that’s the main mission: Trying to get our soils and farm lands back to the health they used to be in,” she said.

“If it’s a trend, bring it on. It’s one of the best ones.”

Obviously, we’ve just got to wait and see. Given Wal-Mart’s labor practices and it’s penchant for decimating small businesses, I’ll still be staying away. But, I’ll be watching closely…

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