Wal-Mart's sustainability programme, which is forcing manufacturers worldwide to reduce their environmental impact, has come under heavy criticism from a coalition of international labour and civic organisations for being "unsustainable".
The 23 human rights, labour and environmental groups conclude in a report released yesterday that Wal-Mart's sustainability programme lacks "real impact on global warming, employee health and welfare" - even if all the targets are met.
The criticism could force Wal-Mart to adjust its programme, leading to a toughening of the conditions, putting further cost pressures on manufacturers who must comply, or fall out of the supply chain to the world's largest retailer.
Consumer and regulatory pressures are forcing companies to look at all aspects of their suppliers' operations, including employment conditions, and their impact on the environment.
Mandates from powerful retailers such as Wal-Mart are pushing manufacturers to comply. Wal-Mart is already forcing its suppliers to cut down on packaging waste and to use more environmentally -friendly materials.
The coaliation's report was made public at the same time as Wal-Mart's release of a document outlining the retailer's progress in meeting the committments management made two years ago.
In the area paper and paper packaging, Wal-Mart has committed to reduce its paper packaging, but has not taken other steps forward like endorsing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, the coaliation stated.
"Due to the major environmental impact of logging and paper production, it is important for Wal-Mart to establish stringent standards for its suppliers," the groups stated.
On the issue of CO2 reduction the groups say Wal-Mart's goals for reducing global warming pollution leave many sources of greenhouse gases off the agenda.
"Wal-Mart's goal to cut its annual greenhouse gases by five million tons would be admirable if it weren't for the fact that the company publicly acknowledged in 2006 that its global operations created 220 million tons of greenhouse gases every year," the groups stated. "That's more than 40 times the emissions the company says it would like to eliminate."
The groups also criticised the supply chain to Wal-Mart's stores, claiming that more needs to be done to reduce CO2 emissions.
They noted that the latest progress report stated that company's global carbon emissions actually rose 8.6 per cent in 2006, indicating that the company is "far off track" in meeting its own goals.
"Wal-Mart's 'cheap' imports are not cheap if you consider the estimated two million tons of annual carbon emissions associated with shipping from China to US ports, pollution from inefficient non-U.S. trucking fleets, and the health impacts of port pollution on local communities," the groups stated.
The groups also criticised Wal-Mart's sustainability efforts in other areas, including organics, seafood, shrimp, forest products, cypress mulch, toxic chemicals, and international business practices.
On the issue of organics, the report alleges Wal-Mart misrepresents conventional food products as organics and charges that the company has attempted to drive down prices by using factory farm products of "questionable quality".
Ultimately, the groups contend that the retailer's "sustainability" agenda ignores the health and welfare of employees, customers, the environment and local economies worldwid.
"Wal-Mart can change to more efficient light bulbs, but that doesn't change its carbon footprint or the enormous social consequences of its globally unsustainable business model," stated report contributor Ruben Garcia of Global Exchange.
"If we look at its practices internationally, Wal-Mart has used its market power to cut costs at the expense of workers and the environment across the developing world."
Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute also criticised Wal-Mart's practices relating to the sourcing of foods worldwide from "factory farms".
"There is no action we take, as consumers, that has a more profound impact on the environment than our choice of food, and Wal-Mart's dependence on imports and unsustainable factory farming is highly destructive," he stated.
In October 2005 Wal-Mart made public committments to move to only using renewable energy sources, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain resources and the environment.
In the supply chain the committments translate into Wal-Mart's efforts to increase truck fleet fuel efficiency by 25 per cent over three years and by double within 10 years.
Wal-Mart also wants to reduce energy use in its stores by 30 per cent, greenhouse gasses by 20 per cent over seven years, to reduce solid waste from US stores by 25 per cent in three years, and overall packaging by 5 per cent by 2013.,
The coaliation report was coordinated by the Big Box Collaborative, and includes contributions from ActionAid International USA, The Cornucopia Institute, Corporate Ethics International, Dogwood Alliance, Environmental Investigation Agency, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, the Institute for Policy Studies, and International Labor Rights Forum, among others.
Due to the time difference with the US, FoodProductionDaily.com was unable to get a reaction to the allegations from Wal-Mart.