Are Walmart’s Factories as Bad as Apple’s?

Mother Jones has published a lengthy investigative report on Wal-Mart’s controversial and ambitious policies promoting sustainability, which finds that the auditing process in the corporation’s Chinese factories is rarely enforced and sometimes fraudulent:

Walmart’s campaign to green everything from its break rooms to its global supply chain is one of the most publicized, and controversial, experiments in American retail. The company had made a halfhearted attempt in the ’80s and ’90s, with a few green products and ecofriendly stores. But this latest effort was different. It was sweeping, embracing every part of the company’s business. It emanated directly from the CEO’s office. And, perhaps most remarkably, some of Walmart’s erstwhile critics in the environmental movement—the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and World Wildlife Fund, among others—got on board. Former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach was hired to spread the green message among Walmart’s 1.4 million US employees.

Almost seven years into the program, many environmentalists remain convinced that Walmart is serious about sustainability—and that its actions can have a major impact on the world economy because of the gravitational pull of its vast network of suppliers, customers, and employees. Walmart’s environmental initiatives in China have been heralded—most recently by Orville Schell in The Atlantic—as a key force in spurring other corporations to embrace sound environmental practices. My reporting—more than a year of research that took me from Arkansas to China—suggests a more complex, less flattering story: Walmart has made laudable though modest progress on many of its goals. But with the global economic slowdown tugging at the company’s profit margins, people involved with the environmental campaign say the momentum seems to be stalling or vanishing entirely.

Since launching its sustainability program, Walmart has pledged to eliminate waste, use only renewable energy, sell more organic produce, support small farmers, and slash its energy footprint. That’s no easy task: Each second, 330 people buy something from one of Walmart’s 8,970 stores worldwide. With 2.1 million workers, it is the world’s largest private employer. Its carbon footprint—from its stores, distribution centers, company offices, corporate jets, and so on—totaled 21.4 million metric tons in 2010, more than that of half the world’s countries, according to data Walmart provided to the Carbon Disclosure Project.

But that figure doesn’t include Walmart’s supply chain, a web of more than 100,000 suppliers from Tennessee to Turkey, Cambodia to Mexico.

Read more about Wal-Mart in China, via CDT, including the recent article mentioned above by Orville Schell in the Atlantic, “How Walmart Is Changing China.”