Walmart is attempting to erase its huge climate footprint while continuing to sell tens of millions of low-priced products.
Every day a seemingly never-ending stream of toothbrushes, toilet paper, tape, thumbtacks, toys and other products criss-cross the globe from a network of suppliers to Walmart’s more than 10,500 stores.
The retailer, which was for many years the biggest in the world until Amazon took its crown in August, has a supply chain almost unfathomably complex. And it comes with a huge carbon footprint. In 2019 the company emitted 17.56m metric tons of greenhouse gases.
Walmart has declared its mission to tackle these climate impacts, which means focusing on every part of the chain – from the electricity sourced in its stores to the palm oil in the candy bars sold on its shelves. But while some experts celebrate the scale of the retailer’s efforts, others wonder whether they go far enough.
Over the past years, Walmart has come out with a slew of climate promises. In 2017, it launched “Project Gigaton”, pledging to cut 1bn metric tons of carbon emissions from its supply chain by 2030. Last year it announced a goal to reach zero emissions from its global operations by 2040 without relying on carbon offsets – where companies “cancel out” some of their impact by funding projects that reduce carbon emissions. It’s also promised to be a 100% renewably-powered, zero waste and “regenerative” corporation that does more good than harm.
“It’s extraordinary,” said Michael Vandenbergh, co-director of the Climate Change Research Network at Vanderbilt Law School. “What we’re talking about is one of the largest and most conservative companies in the world making a range of commitments that government is not requiring them to make.”
Yet it’s an uphill task for a retail giant with a business model based on providing tens of millions of low-priced products to a growing number of customers. The big question will be whether this type of business model can persist in a way that aligns with climate science, said Simon Fischweicher, head of corporations and supply chains for environmental nonprofit CDP North America.