Walmart's Sustainability Promises: Myth vs. Reality | Civil Eats

Walmart’s Sustainability Promises: Myth vs. Reality

A new report points to the gap between Walmart's pledge to make its supply chain greener and better for workers and the current reality.

Walmart_shopperWalmart announced yesterday that, beginning July 1, it will improve worker conditions by better regulating the temperature inside its stores, replacing Celine Dion’s greatest hits with a corporate DJ, and allowing associates to wear jeans to work. Walmart will also be bringing back the slogan: “Our people make the difference.”

The news of these fairly superficial improvements follows the more substantive announcement in February that the company will raise its minimum wage to $9 an hour across all stores.

Joann Lo, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, says that no matter how substantial, it’s not enough just to focus on the people who work inside Walmart’s mega-stores. She’s also interested in the long, complex supply chain that allows the world’s largest retailer to sell around 25 percent of all groceries sold in the United States, and closer to 50 percent in 29 markets nationwide.

“We do see that Walmart has a responsibility to its own employees, but also to workers, farmers, and communities down through its supply chain,” she told Civil Eats. Lo has co-authored a new, 120-page report–also released yesterday–called Walmart at the Crossroads. It looks at a whole list of specific foods supplied to Walmart–from blueberries to bananas, eggs, chicken, mushrooms, seafood, and baked goods–and examines both the labor and environmental practices of the company’s largest supplier for each industry in exacting detail.GREG COHEN UNFI Whole Foods action

The report makes the case that Walmart’s widely publicized intentions to make the company fairer and more environmental sustainable are still far from the realities seen in the fields and along the chain. “Walmart’s ability to purchase goods in such large quantities has created a level of power over suppliers unmet by many other retailers,” it reads, and points to a serious lack of independent monitoring due to this power.

Walmart’s constant push for “Everyday Low Prices” may be a root cause of cost- and corner-cutting down the chain, says Lo. For instance, just this April, Fortune reported that Walmart is again “squeezing” its suppliers to slash prices. “What are the suppliers going to do but cut corners to cut prices?” she asks.

In the process of cutting costs, workers and the environment lose out. The report documents dozens of cases of labor discrimination and even slavery in Walmart’s supply chain, including the bombshell news last summer that some shrimp sold at Walmart and Costco is tied to slave labor in Thailand. But the goal is also to draw attention to workers here in the U.S.

Take Larry Cerda, who drives a truck for United Natural Foods (UNFI), an organic distributor for Walmart and other grocers throughout the country.

Cerda says he has frequently been asked by management to use an “emergency provision” allowing drivers to work continuously for up to 16 hours straight. “It’s been so busy that we had drivers that got hurt,” says Cerda, 38. “Two of them needed surgeries, but the company didn’t want to pay for them.” And while Cerda says he’s happy with the hourly rate of $26.20, he says UNFI skirts paying drivers overtime because they drive between picker AA lil from RMM

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Like all of the companies that work for Walmart, UNFI is supposed to adhere to the company’s strict ethical standards requiring suppliers to ensure worker safety, acknowledge trade unions, ensure that work hours aren’t excessive, and follow local and national labor laws. But according to the new report, the situation at UNFI may be less the exception along Walmart’s supply chain, and more the rule. 

Cerda and his co-workers say that UNFI, which distributes over 80,000 natural, organic, and specialty products from 4,000 suppliers, has routinely been blamed for on-the-job injuries, as well as for denying worker’s compensation, and safe and updated vehicles and equipment. He describes being “worked like slaves.” Then last year, Cerda’s coworkers in the UNFI warehouse were found to have been intimidated by management for trying to unionize. In fact, research compiled by the International Labor Rights Forum, suggests that the company has been waging an ongoing union-busting campaign.

The report also highlight Taylor Farms–the company’s largest producer of pre-cut salads and fresh-cut produce–for their labor violations. Taylor Farms has accrued $80,000 in penalties from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has intimidated workers trying to organize, and is currently embroiled in a class-action wage-theft lawsuit, according to the report.

In recent years, Walmart has taken steps to improve its record on the environment, such as the announcement it made late last month about new standards for antibiotic use and humane treatment of animals. However, the Food Chain Worker Alliance’s report is full of allegations that Walmart is “greenwashing”–or exaggerating its environmental stewardship to improve its public image. For instance, despite a commitment in 2005 from Walmart’s then CEO that the company would “be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy,” the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency put that number at just 16 percent currently. Still, Walmart’s corporate website claims that 24 percent of the chain’s global energy needs are met by renewable sources.

Walmart media relations did not return a request for a statement or an interview.

The timing of the report coincides with Walmart’s annual corporate shareholder meetings. Lo says there are things the corporate giant could do today to improve its labor and environmental record, like requiring UNFI and Taylor Farms to respect their employees’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.

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“Right now, Walmart has a choice to make: Is it going to move forward with the positive steps that it has made so far on labor and the environment?” says Lo. If not, she says, “It will seem that the steps they’ve made are just a PR stunt.”


Photos from top: A Walmart shopper, courtesy of Walmart Corporate; Greg Cohen, UNFI Whole Foods action, courtesy of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; An apple picker, courtesy of Rural and Migrant Ministry.

Steve Holt is a Senior Editor and Writer at Boston University. His reporting has appeared in many publications including The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Edible Boston. Follow him on Twitter @thebostonwriter. Read more >

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  1. Vicky Kelly
    Thank you for this excellent and informative article.

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