Luftverschmutzung in Liaoning China
Photo credit: lhgszch on Flickr.

Back in December 2009, I wrote a post for the Duck called “Wal-mart Isn’t Green.” Jared Diamond had written a provocative op-ed about various green business initiatives for the NY Times and Steve Walt had blogged about it too.

I recently thought about that exchange because the December issue of The Atlantic included an interesting article by the Asia Society’s Orville Schell called “How Walmart Is Changing China.” Much of the article considers burgeoning environmental initiatives involving Walmart and China:

The world’s biggest corporation and the world’s most populous nation have launched a bold experiment in consumer behavior and environmental stewardship: to set green standards for 20,000 suppliers making several hundred thousand items sold to billions of shoppers worldwide. …one thing is already clear: how Walmart and China interact with each other over the next decade will be critical to the fate of the planet’s environment.

Schell mentions three very ambitious green goals Walmart has established for itself:

1. To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy.
2. To create zero waste.
3. To sell products that sustain our resources and environment.

I’d encourage everyone to read the piece to get a feel for the scope of the problem and for interesting discussion of the various initiatives underway.

I’m primarily interested in the article’s conclusion. Will this work?

On the final page, Schell finally comes to the question that has been nagging at me for some years — as my 2009 blog post accusing Walmart of “greenwashing” made clear:

However smart, prescient, and successful Walmart’s sustainability efforts actually turn out to be, just how “sustainable” is the whole bloody global-retail proposition that lies at the heart of the company’s amazing progress?

For the first cut at an answer, Schell quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, who recently wrote a book about Walmart’s environmentalism:

“When I started, I didn’t imagine I would be convinced that Walmart was green. And actually, they are not green, but they are a lot better than they were. And the efforts they are making are influencing not only their suppliers, but other businesses as well. Now Walmart is acting something like a private regulator. Nonetheless, the nature of their outsourced business model is not, ultimately, sustainable.”

And Schell’s final thoughts about both China and Walmart are certainly pessimistic:

In fact, one could say the same thing about China, which—after so many decades of defiant proletarian opposition to capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism—has embraced the American-style market and is ardently following the Walmart path to prosperity. Indeed, allowing, even encouraging, people to consume as much as they want, or can, has become one of the Chinese Communist Party’s key strategies for political legitimacy and social stability. Party leaders may label their version of development “scientific” or “sustainable,” but it’s still development. The bitter reality is that even if unrestrained consumerism becomes less environmentally destructive per unit of production than it was in the past, it is still unsustainable in the long run. So even as this most innovative of corporate and statist green strategies may represent an environmental breakthrough and good business for Walmart, and good politics for the Chinese government, it may nonetheless end up being very bad business for humankind.

In the long-run, consumers and businesses alike must figure out ways to operate sustainably. I suspect the phrase “global supply chain” isn’t going to fit into that plan very well given the inherently large volume of energy and other resource usage associated with moving and consuming products around the world, including food.