Greenwashing the Wal-Mart Way

Wal-Mart announced on Thursday a plan to “focus on sustainable agriculture” and according to the New York Times, “expand its efforts to improve environmental efficiency among its suppliers.” The massive retailer, and now largest grocer in the US, intends to sell locally grown food in their US stores and invest in “training and infrastructure for small and medium-size farmers, particularly in emerging markets” The retailer heralded the change as part of their “sustainability goals,” announced in 2005 in which they pledged to double the fuel efficiency of their massive fleet of trucks, reduce energy consumption in stores and minimize packaging.

What does this actually mean? First, it’s a part of ongoing efforts by corporate actors like Wal-Mart to brand “sustainability” as a corporate-friendly term synonymous with productivity, efficiency and maximization. Sustainable means, in other words, whatever Wal-Mart says it means. And in this announcement, sustainable agricultural products mean one thing and one thing only: local. This is smart, of course, because the locavore movement is the bourgeois obsession du jour. And local, in Wal-Martease, means simply anything grown in the same state as the store selling the product. It’s that simple.

So, for example, conventionally grown agribusiness-sourced grapes picked in southern California by migrant farmworkers shipped thousands of miles to other California stores via the Wal-Mart fleet of trucks is now ‘sustainable.’

And since few others will ask what this means, particularly the New York Times in their gushing article of October 14 reporting on the announcement, perhaps we should. What does this announcement really mean and what social and environmental cost does Wal-Mart’s new definition of sustainability promise?

First, as Cesar Chavez reminded us, the agricultural products we buy from large grocery retailers “come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.” According to the California Research Bureau (CRB), “80 percent of U.S. farm workers earn less than $10,000 per year; half earn less than $5,000… wages for entry-level seasonal farm workers averaged $5.22 per hour.” And it’s not just the workers at Wal-Mart suppliers. According to a 2006 study of Wal-Mart labor practices, an average Wal-Mart retail worker averages 34 hours per week and earns, on average, $17,874 per year. That’s a pay rate nearly twenty percent less than the average retail worker, according to some estimates.

The Income insecurity of immiseration wages paid to farmworkers means, among other things, widespread housing insecurity. Nearly one million farm workers nationwide lack adequate housing. Many live in shacks on the private property of the farms where they work. And it has become commonplace for California growers to bulldoze farmworker labor camps while at the same enriching themselves from farmworker labor. The CRB found that in California many are forced to live in tool sheds, abandoned automobiles and even under porches. These workers are so exploited, their lives so invisible, their status usually undocumented that they rarely access what social services and health care are available to them. As a result, farmworkers, who work in the second most dangerous occupation in the US, have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage among California workers. According to the CRB, “around 40 California farmworkers die on the job” each year from accidents and heat stroke. But Wal-Mart would have you forget about farm work as brutal and deadly. No, just stamp the bag of grapes “sustainable.”

And of course Wal-Mart would consider the brutal exploitation of farmworkers sustainable, after all the exploitation of workers, the source of their enormous profits, is their specialty. In February of 2009 Wal-Mart reported quarterly sales of nearly $108 billion with earnings per share of 96 cents. At the same time they were embroiled in at least 73 class action lawsuits regarding working conditions and labor policies at Wal-Mart stores. The lawsuits included a host of allegations including that managers forced “employees to work unpaid off the clock, eras[ed] hours from time cards and prevent[ed] workers from taking lunch and other breaks that were promised by the company or guaranteed by state laws. Hundreds of thousands of former Wal-Mart employees have joined class action lawsuits alleging that Wal-Mart forced them to work off the clock. In 2004, Michael Rodriguez, an overnight stocker in a Sam’s Club store, was locked in the store, a policy common at Wal-Mart, when he suffered a serious injury. ”My ankle was crushed,” by an electronic cart driven by another employee he told the New York Times. ”I was yelling and running around like a hurt dog that had been hit by a car. Another worker made some phone calls to reach a manager, and it took an hour for someone to get there and unlock the door.” He writhed in agony awaiting a manager to unlock the door so he could go to the hospital, a policy Wal-Mart said was necessary to kept people like Michael Rodriguez from stealing from them.

Second, Wal-Mart’s new green washing shell game ignores the health effects of large-scale pesticide use. Nearly 1,000 farmworkers in California are poisoned each year from the use of agricultural chemicals. Wal-Mart’s sustainability policies and their laughable “focus on sustainable agriculture” use the mark of sustainability as an attempt to protect the kind of low wage, race-to-the-bottom production that serves as the foundation of their success. So buy ‘sustainably-sourced’ vegetables at any California Wal-Mart and feel good knowing that prolonged exposure to agricultural chemicals raises the risk for lung cancer and other illnesses. Throw a handful of Wal-Mart seedless grapes into your mouth without concern for the fact that, according to a 2003 study of Spanish farmworkers in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the offspring of agricultural workers suffer almost twice the risk of fetal death than offspring of non-agricultural workers.

Wal-Mart’s sustainability policies mask the real health and environmental costs of agribusiness and are designed not to transform patterns of production, distribution and consumption (that would only mean less profits after all and who wants that?). So instead their sustainability goals serve to obscure the human costs and environmental consequences of the rapacious pursuit of profits made on the backs of workers. The only thing Wal-Mart’s sustainability policies are sustaining is their continued access to low wage workers toiling in brutal conditions who are eventually, like Michael Rodriguez, sacrificed at the alter of their all important earnings per share.

Lastly, local, as described above, means anything sold in the same state where it was grown. It’s all a joke made at the expense of workers and the environment. A 2007 analysis of Wal-Mart’s sustainability scam by a coalition of labor, environmental and human rights organizations criticized the plan as nothing more than a corporate ruse. Even if every possible target goal were reached, the plan would not make any “real impact on global warming, employee health and welfare.” Their report, titled “Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Initiative: A Civil Society Critique” asked if Wal-Mart can “claim to be “sustainable” when it drives down wages [and] refuses wages to some 20,000 minors working in its Mexican stores.” But the report was particularly pointed on the environmental impact of Wal-Mart. The “focus on sustainable agriculture”, the report noted, is one more example of Wal-Mart’s attempt to recast itself as a green company, and in so doing protect a particularly unsustainable way of doing business. According to Wal-Mart’s own reports, total global operations in 2006 released 220 million tons of greenhouse gases. An amount that is more than 40 times greater than the emissions the company’s sustainability plan pledges to reduce. Does their “sustainable agriculture” policy resolve this? Consider their tricky term ‘local.’ A 2004 Counterpunch article by Yoshie Furuhashi used a Teamster’s organizing map of Wal-Mart distribution points to demonstrate that most sates are already served by local Wal-Mart distribution centers. The term local, in other words, as a definition of ‘sustainable’ doesn’t require any transformation to existing Wal-Mart distribution patterns. It’s green washing at its most sophisticated.

So what does sustainable agriculture mean to Wal-Mart? Sustainable is the new ‘synergy.’ A term executives at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas use in powerpoint slide presentations they give to one another that conclude with predictions of windfall profit and a new green identity. I can just see the pie charts now. And the corporate bonuses that follow. And the lower wages for farmworkers as a result.

Wal-Mart has joined the crowd and has seized on the new green economy as insurance for their continued growth and expansion. It’s the new model but it means the same old thing. It means sourcing products from huge agribusiness firms who grow monocrops dependent on the heavy use of pesticides and make narrow profit margins by brutally exploiting farmworkers. Bon Appetit.

DAVID CORREIA is a Visiting Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He can be reached at dcorreia(at)unm(dot)edu.

David Correia is the author of Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico and a co-editor of La Jicarita: An Online Magazine of Environmental Politics in New Mexico