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Are Wal-Mart’s Changes Enough to Quiet Critics?

October 03, 2008 06:58 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Having made efforts to go green, Wal-Mart is now tackling child labor by boycotting cotton from Uzbekistan; but will the mega-retailer ever be fully embraced by critics?

Stepping Forward or Digging Deeper?

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Although it has been heavily criticized in the past, retail giant Wal-Mart has won over some critics, including environmental groups, for changing some practices and policies. However, there are many critics who contend that Wal-Mart’s business model is ultimately unsustainable, intrinsically immoral and part of a larger issue that has yet to be addressed: the dominance of big-box retail chains in America and their subsequent effect on both the environment and the global economy. The question remains, should critics keep trying to beat Wal-Mart, or finally join them?

Wal-Mart’s first green initiatives began “as a marketing campaign and nothing more,” according to Mark Hughes, director of the Martin Agency, Wal-Mart’s ad firm. However, Hughes told Advertising Age that in his observation, “Wal-Mart has become a true believer in sustainability.”

For example, in 2005, Wal-Mart’s chief executive H. Lee Scott unveiled “a set of sweeping, specific environmental goals,” including reducing energy usage, addressing fuel efficiency and packaging, and urging its suppliers to do the same, according to The New York Times.

Furthermore, in April 2008, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. began supporting organic farming by purchasing millions of pounds of cotton from farmers committed to “changing over from conventional to organic farming,” Reuters reported.
According to CNN Money, observers of the retail industry believe Wal-Mart was initially hesitant to embrace organic products because the company was uncertain how its “low-income consumers” would respond. Wal-Mart changed its tactics once “going green” became mainstream.

In Wal-Mart’s latest effort to “improve its record on social and environmental sustainability,” it has joined others in boycotting cotton from Uzbekistan, which uses forced child labor, reports the Financial Times. The boycott is Wal-Mart’s most “sweeping action over sourcing issues,” indicating a commitment to social consciousness. Wal-Mart was also instrumental in bringing U.S. retailers and cotton importers together to address the Uzbekistan issue earlier this year.

In response, some critics have praised Wal-Mart, while encouraging the company to do even more. But others contend that no matter how much Wal-Mart does to lessen its carbon footprint or support organic farming, the company will never be sustainable.

Though Jim Nicolow of American Public Media acknowledged that Wal-Mart “has a long way to go” and “a lot to make up for,” he also offered words of support. Nicolow writes, “[I]t’s undeniable that this leading retailer can help transform the business world toward sustainability.” He encouraged Wal-Mart to begin placing carbon labels on products to “give consumers the opportunity to reward producers that lower their greenhouse gas emissions.”

But Nicolow’s encouragement and acceptance of Wal-Mart is precisely what other critics contend is the problem. Stacy Mitchell of Grist.org believes that Wal-Mart’s green initiatives have “distracted” environmentalists, journalists and consumers from the fact that “big-box retailing” is “intrinsically unsustainable.” When environmental groups laud Wal-Mart, they are “implying that this method of retailing goods can, with adjustments, be made sustainable,” Mitchell writes. Furthermore, “they are helping Wal-Mart expand,” she concludes.

Background: Uzbekistan child labor

In Oct. 2007, the BBC released a documentary about child labor in Uzbekistan, showing children “being forced to work in cotton fields instead of going to school.” The BBC journalists who filmed the documentary were arrested at one point, but managed to salvage their footage.

Uzbekistan has a “brutal authoritarian regime” that administers “widespread torture,” and killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in 2005.

After the BBC documentary came out, “several international companies said they would stop buying Uzbek cotton,” according to the United Nations Refuge Agency. Among the participating retailers were Sweden’s H&M and Finland’s Marimekko. However, the U.S.-based International Cotton Advisory Committee, which “promotes the world cotton trade,” deemed the allegations against Uzbekistan “‘exaggerated’ and ‘absurd.’”

Reference: International Cotton Advisory Committee

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