Context is critical to understanding Walmart’s sustainability
initiatives and their impact on the retailer’s overall environmental
footprint. But context has been sorely absent in the news media’s
coverage of
Walmart’s green efforts. Even within the environmental community,
conversations about Walmart tend to miss the big picture.

renewable-energy activities provide a perfect example. Six years ago, the company announced
that it was setting a goal of being “supplied by 100 percent renewable
energy.” Succinct, powerfully stated goals are a signature of Walmart’s
sustainability campaign — in part, it seems, because journalists often repeat these
goals verbatim, so they function like stealth marketing slogans that infiltrate
media coverage. Walmart’s renewable-energy goal has been especially effective
on this front, appearing in thousands of newspaper articles and countless blog
posts. Many of these stories use the goal as a jumping-off point to highlight
the retailer’s renewable-energy projects, which include putting solar panels on
130 stores in California and buying 180 million kilowatt-hours of wind power in
Texas annually. These stories create the overall impression that Walmart is
making great progress on renewable energy.

But what
if, rather than repeating Walmart’s stated goal of 100 percent renewable power,
these news stories had instead reported that the company currently derives less
than 2 percent of its electricity from its solar projects and wind-power purchases?
That’s not a figure Walmart has published, and journalists have done little to
bring it to light. At its current pace of converting to renewables, it would
take Walmart about 300 years to get to 100 percent clean power. Some of its
competitors are already there. Kohl’s and Whole Foods (both of which, I should
add, have their own problems when it comes to the gap between their
environmental PR and reality) have fully converted to renewable power, as have
many independent retailers.