“Sustainable Walmart” = Oxymoron Defined

In its very essence, Walmart is the epitome of an unsustainable organization.  Like any big box store, Walmart’s are traditionally located off the beaten track where they are built on cheaper real estate, thus the very act of consumers driving to a Walmart to shop is one of many illustrations of unsustainability. It’s like the “Outlet Mall Fallacy” – by the time consumers factor in their time, gas, wear and tear on their vehicle, and so on, is it really worth it to go all the way to Walmart to shop?

Plagued by critics condemning them for poor employee practices, perpetuating labour violations among suppliers, and similarly negative sentiments, Walmart is a company used to controversy. When they rebranded, changing the company name from Wal-Mart to Walmart and developing a refreshed colour scheme and logo design, Walmart introduced a new sustainability commitment.

Sustainable Walmart – Am I the only person who finds this oxymoronic?

As a large corporation, Walmart has a significant sphere of influence. Consequently, I believe they have a correspondingly large responsibility to demonstrate sustainable and positive behaviours. Walmart seems to be addressing this from a triple bottom line perspective: the economy, the environment, and the society. But what implications will these measures have for Walmart stakeholders, particularly consumers and suppliers?

Consumers don’t shop at Walmart because it’s sustainable; in fact, in a survey I conducted two years ago, respondents overwhelming agreed they didn’t actually care if Walmart was sustainable. This leads me to question why Walmart bothered introducing these sustainability measures, particularly as Sam Walton’s original approach was solely on a low-price focus: “Always low prices. Always.” The most logical conclusion I can draw is that it has to do with proactively making changes so that regulatory changes have a reduced negative impact on the corporation and their image. That, and it’s a great way for Walmart to improve their image.

Walmart’s “Responsible Growth” Advertisement

By introducing measures such as the Supplier Sustainability Index, Walmart is putting top-down pressure on suppliers to enhance practices to incorporate greater efficiency and sustainability. On the flip side, the very nature of Walmart’s supply structure demands quick turnover and response time by suppliers; in order to meet Walmart’s steep demands, suppliers have often cut corners in areas like employee well-being and health standards. Nonetheless, this increased pressure on suppliers is likely to result in changes throughout the entire commodities sector.

Historically, Walmart’s activities and efforts have had a domino effect on the economy and business practices; the same will likely be true as Walmart continues to reinforce their commitment to triple bottom line sustainability. One thing is clear: Walmart’s current strategy transcends founder Walton’s initial strategy of focusing almost solely on low prices; the company is demonstrating a greater commitment to the “how” rather than just the end product. Despite the significant discourse faced by Walmart, they are becoming progressively harder to hate as they address many of the areas and business practices long condemned by supporters and critics. As writer Lloyd Alter aptly stated, “The Wal-Mart Effect may yet do for the environment what it did for the American economy, which was to affect us all, whether we shopped there or not.”

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