The Walmart (and other corporations') Wink-wink

walmart tree

Grist just published a story about Walmart’s political contributions that raises my skeptical (more like cynical) eyebrows. The same story is commonplace these days. Walmart, which stayed out of political giving during its founder’s years, has become one of the largest corporate political contributors in recent years. Here is the Grist story in a paragraph.

Walmart talks big about sustainability, but doesn’t put its campaign money anywhere near where its mouth is. Whatever the company may say about the importance of legislative action on climate change or other environmental issues, its money is signaling the opposite, telling lawmakers that it’s perfectly fine to vote against environmental protection.

I have used Walmart as a target of my barbs in the past, but not for this reason. My usual screed aims at the improper use of the word “sustainability” in their programs and public statements. Like virtually all corporations, Walmart fails to grasp the systems nature of sustainability. They join many others in believing that they can measure the positive contribution they are making to sustainability and can, then, convey that message to their customers. Tree-huggers, no way!

Of course, they can do nothing of the sort. Sustainability is not remotely tied to any single source of perturbations to the natural or human sphere; it emerges from the world when all the relationships that interconnect the myriad of environmental and social processes are working in harmony. At best, I could attribute their behavior to ignorance and at worst to a deliberate effort to disguise the reality of their business by painting a rosy picture for their customers.

Everything and anything they do in the name of sustainability falls into the category of eco-efficiency, providing equal or greater value to the customer with less environmental impact. This is, again of course, a good move unless they engage in misleading advertising and product labeling. The twin objectives of growth (very strong at Walmart) and reduced negative impact (not so important, it seems) are antagonistic if not downright contradictory. It may be, as in many large corporations, that one hand (the Washington lobbying office) doesn’t know what the other (home base) is doing. If a company cannot even operate effectively within the complex system that big firms like Walmart comprise, it cannot begin to understand and interact effectively with the much larger and more complex system called Earth. And it is Earth from whence sustainability comes, not Walmart or any single node in the socio-economic systems of the globe.

I doubt that this organizational imperfection is at the root of their behavior. Their hegemonic dreams of being the only show in “town” has harmed communities world-wide. Efficiency (low-cost) cannot substitute for the relationships on which sustainability rests. Similarly, their well-known opposition to unionization—perhaps a strong motivator of the political giving—runs counter to human flourishing, the quality that sustainability wants to sustain.

There is no particular difference between Walmart and any other large corporation concerning sustainability. They are larger than most and are narrowly focused on consumption. They are perhaps the most recognized symbol of growth of any other enterprise, save a few in the technology sector. I don’t believe that they are overtly anti-environmental as the way they distribute their money to legislators would indicate:

Its dollars skew heavily in favor of candidates who routinely vote against the environment. Since the company launched its sustainability campaign in 2005, 40 percent of the $3.9 million it has given to members of Congress went to those who have lifetime scores of 20 or less on the League of Conservation Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard —┬ámeaning they vote against the environment 80-100 percent of the time. Another 19 percent went to those who vote against the environment 50-79 percent of the time.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, trumps cost cutting at Walmart. Using standard accounting rules, environmental protection usually shows up as a short-term cost no matter how beneficial it might be in the long run. That’s why regulation is essential and why climate change deniers are favorites of companies like Walmart. I do not expect Walmart voluntarily to do any better or act differently although they occasionally make claims about doing good. They are merely following the rules, which they work hard to influence in their favor, seeking special treatment through the contributions. Quite a vicious circle. Make the rules more favorable; offer cheaper prices; add to unsustainability; repeat the cycle over and over. I often end my Walmart posts with this line. I will know that they are serious about sustainability when the greeter who stands in the entrance corridor stops every incoming customer ask asks them, “Do you really need to buy anything today?” I won’t (nor will my children) live long enough for this to happen.

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