Publicity stunt or genuine concern

Wal-Mart grabs headlines again as it pledges environmental responsibility.

In a game of word association, “progressive” would almost never be associated with “Wal-Mart.” The retail giant has a long history of shady labor and business practices, and disparaging remarks about the company can be elicited effortlessly. Wal-Mart seems to have no intentions to change that part of its image, but it is embarking on an ambitious project to clean up its operations.

Last year, Wal-Mart unveiled a new program to help the world’s largest retailer become a leader in environmental responsibility. The new program, Sustainability 360, aims to reduce packaging, reduce the number of delivery trucks and work with its suppliers to create more “sustainable factories and businesses.”

It’s hard not to be suspicious of this rhetoric because its goals are so vague, and Wal-Mart is getting headlines without much real action. Certainly part of this is a rebranding effort to compete for some of the shoppers who would normally choose Target. It began last year when there were highly publicized promotions for compact fluorescent light bulbs, and Wal-Mart increased the availability of organic foods in its grocery section.

Now, in a partnership with the Carbon Disclosure Project, a nonprofit organization, Wal-Mart has stated it will begin collecting greenhouse gas emission data from its suppliers. This is stage one in an initiative to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

We want to take Wal-Mart seriously, but the company is still overshadowed by controversy. Within the past week, a lawsuit was announced by Minnesotan plaintiffs on behalf of 56,000 employees who claim Wal-Mart forced them to work during breaks and while off-the-clock. This type of disregard for employees will always overshadow any green efforts by the company. Certainly Wal-Mart is the 800-pound gorilla of retail, and a strong program could have dramatic effects, but right now it seems like a bunch of chest-thumping. Is Wal-Mart genuine or is it just milking the trendy green movement for publicity? It remains to be seen if Sustainability 360 will result in real changes, or if it will merely be an exercise in spinning, as 360 seems to imply, in circles.