In The Shaky Ground of Sustainable Development, Environmental historian Donald Worster worried that in the partnership between ecological sustainability and development “it will be 'development' that makes most of the decisions and 'sustainability' will come trotting along, smiling and genial, unable to assert any firm leadership, complaining only about the pace of travel.” When the engine driving 'sustainable development' is a corporation like Wal-Mart, the relationship Worster feared is realized. Lee Scott Jr., Wal-Mart CEO, admitted his self-awareness about the failings of Wal-Mart's sustainable development practices by admitting, “We are not green.” The video below, taken from The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog seems to be a perfect microcosm of the potentials and failings of green capital.
Lee Scott Jr. is introduced as the CEO of Wal-Mart, a man in control of over 7,000 stores, 2 million employees, and one of the largest truck fleets in the world. Wal-Mart is the second largest employer in the United States, second only to the U.S. Government. It seems that societal change, big change, will have to deal with this giant. Scott acknowledges there is a long way Wal-Mart can go, given its huge footprint (go here to read the full interview). The video clip shows his response to the issue of bottled water.Selling bottled water is a complete environmental disaster. According to an NRDC study, each liter of bottled water you drink requires at least 3 liters of water to produce and releases 1.9 pounds of CO2. And ¼ of the bottled water sold in the U.S. is tap water anyway. Ignoring the oil required to make each plastic bottle, just transporting all the water bottles consumed in the U.S. requires a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers, according to the NRDC Report.
Scott knows at least some of this, and is surprised to see bottled water at a conference on ecological economics. Why does he sell bottled water then? “We have to stay in business. So if the customer wants bottled water, we are going to sell bottled water.”
The 'customer' did not want bottled water a decade ago (see chart), but thanks to marketing and America's unending ability to consume, bottled water has become hotly demanded. Imagine if we'd kept our desires for bottled water at their 1986 levels. That would be almost 6,000 fewer bottles of water to transport a year, and while I'm sure it would hurt Wal-Mart's bottom line, it might help the bottom line of our landfills, water reserves, and climate. Mr. Scott continues in the interview to discuss making the plastic on each water bottle thinner, with the ultimate aim of having “less of a negative impact.”
Imagine if Wal-Mart managed to cut CO2 emissions per bottle by one half. They could do this by using efficient shipping techniques, or using less plastic in each bottle.
Imagine if every bottled water retailer managed this feat. They could decrease the impact of those 8,000 bottles we consume to only 4,000 bottles worth of impact. Those 4,000 bottles would still be a doubling of the environmental impact caused by bottled water in 1987. The point here, which Scott seems to understand, is that selling bottled water will always have a negative impact. Selling more of it will lead to more of a negative impact. The best we can hope for from 'green business' is less of a negative impact.