Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wal*Mart Your Way To A Greener World

I'm not sure I buy this hook, line, and sinker, but there's definitely a logic to it that I'll have to consider:

As I drove my load of goodies home, I started to feel a surge of Green Guilt: the Great Wastrel staggers home in his gas-guzzling automobile stuffed with Big Box Retail productions — the enemy of everything sustainable. Shouldn’t I be riding a bio-degradable bicycle to the farmer’s market to pick up locally produced heirloom beets and carry them home in my reusable organic burlap shopping sack?

Actually, no. Walmart and its Big Box friends are making the world a greener, more sustainable place. This isn’t because of any PR stunts or corporate green initiatives they may have going; it’s because they are relentlessly focused on profit and efficiency. It is their cutthroat capitalism not their sense of corporate citizenship that will save us — if anything can.

Walmart is helping to save the planet because it’s tough and realistic and focused like a laser on the bottom line. Giving customers what they want at low prices has made Walmart an irresistible force in the market. Every sock factory in China, every flatware manufacturer in Bangladesh wants to crack the Walmart market. Some purchasers buy by the crate and the carton; Walmart buys in the millions and billions.

But there’s a catch. Walmart wants to sell cheap to its customers; that means it must buy cheap from producers. And Walmart isn’t loyal; what have you done for me lately? is what its buyers want to know. Maybe last year you sold them ten million pairs of men’s shorts; if you want to repeat that you are going to have to be the low bidder yet again. If the factory across town (or across the ocean) figures out a way to make shorts that meet Walmart’s specs for two cents a pair less than your price — it’s goodbye to those ten million sales.

That means you, and everyone else trying to sell to Walmart, have to spend all your time figuring out how to produce the same product with less. Walmart’s ruthless focus on reducing prices is driving producers everywhere to cut the costs of production: to switch to cheaper materials, use less packaging, cut down on waste of all kinds and to consolidate and rationalize both production and distribution. The result is a steady and inexorable decline in humanity’s impact on the environment for every unit of GDP.

The Green Police couldn’t do it any better. In fact, given the political cluelessness, uncertain signals (is nuclear energy a good thing or a bad thing?), and anti-scientific knuckle dragging from environmentalists on subjects like the use of GMOs in agriculture, it’s likely that a world run by Walmart would be both richer and cleaner than a world run by Greenpeace. Not that I want Walmart (or Greenpeace) to run the world, bu at the end of the day, being ruthlessly cheap is the most important way of being green. To cut out waste, to use methods of production that cut the energy consumed at every stage in the process, to strip packaging to the barest minimum, to reduce the amount of raw materials in every product: this is the mother lode of green. This is how a growing human population limits its impact on the earth. This is where Walmart and green are as one.

More, by doing what so many of its critics hate and driving small mom and pop stores out of business, Walmart is making the planet greener still. It is much more energy-efficient to have one large store that receives large shipments than to have dozens of little trucks roaming the highways and byways with small deliveries to small retailers. It is also more efficient to have consumers come to one store for all their needs rather than having them drive all over creation — to the farmer’s market for the local rutabagas, to the small appliance and notion store for the toaster, to the pharmacy for the drugs, the optometrist for their glasses, to the butcher and baker and candlestick maker for everything else.

Meanwhile, Walmart, like other enviro-friendly companies like Amazon and Costco, is doing its best to become greener still by luring customers to shop its website. It is much more environmentally beneficial for Walmart to ship my socks and my garden tools directly to my door than for me to drive to the mall to pick them up. Delivery trucks use complicated mathematical algorithms to make the most deliveries with the least use of fuel and time. That’s especially true because Walmart is clearly dreaming of the day when it can cut back on expensive stores and sell more of its products directly through the web.


allen (in Michigan) said...

So what are you unsure of?

The author's just laying out a particularly large-scale but clearly-defined example of the results of capitalism. The history of capitalism is literally a constant stream of exactly the same sort of thing. It's the process of making a relatively small number of people explicitly richer by making much larger numbers of people implicitly richer, i.e. making the stuff they buy cheaper.

If blacksmith Black figures out a way to shoe your horse for a dollar and make a profit and blacksmith Smith refuses to budge on his use of older, more expensive methods that cost two dollars then blacksmith Black will prosper greatly but all his customer's will prosper every time they utilize his services. They'll have a dollar they otherwise wouldn't have had. In a nutshell, that's Wallmart.

The reason greenie-weenies, and lefties in general, are opposed to Wallmart is just because it is a large-scale, wide-spread example of capitalism in action and the essence of capitalism is freedom of choice. The more freedom people have the more difficult it is for their superiors to impose their superior values on "the mases" which, if you step back and examine leftie policy is inevitably at the heart of leftie policy.

Thing is, there's not much point in arguing with them. The same motivation that creates back seat drivers creates lefties. Lefties just have grander aspirations but are just as immune to argument or reason. Directing other people's lives is what they do, who they are and all they're capable of so like the back seat driver the most that can be done with them is to grit your teeth and ignore them.

Anonymous said...

That is partially true insofar as it affects packaging, but not really true insofar as it affects overall cost.

From an economic standpoint, it's cheaper to build things in a Chinese factory, with workers getting paid $1/day, no environmental controls on factory emissions, and power produced from coal plants with equally bad environmental controls. those goods are then sent to the US.

From an environmental standpoint, that isn't ideal.

The search for cost has a variety of benefits, but the main pressure is to push production to cheaper, less regulated, areas of the world.

Rose said...

So which is it?
The initial argument is that having everything delivered to one central location saves gas compared to having delivery trucks drop off goods at every Mom and Pop retailer in town.
Later in the piece, it says that online shopping is even greener b/c having socks and garden tools delivered to my house saves gas. How is it more fuel efficient to deliver to every house in town but not to every Mom and Pop retailer? I guess it assumes I just stay at home wearing my socks and using my garden tools and I never go anywhere? Not a very realistic scenario.
I'd rather have quality service and goods than tons of packaging, lousy service and cheapo crap that breaks as soon as you use it. 'Cause all that junk that breaks so easily isn't making the planet any greener when it ends up in the landfill.

Darren said...

Rose, I think you misunderstood. It said that delivery trucks will be more efficient than *you* would be.

allen (in Michigan) said...

Oh anonymous, you really ought to keep up with the news.

Chinese wage rates are rising so quickly that western Chinese cities are now the new frontier for cheap labor and some of the Chinese governments concerns about development and prosperity being limited to the eastern cities is starting to ease.

Interestingly enough, as China's per capita income has risen concern about the environment has increased. Turns out that when you're concerned about starving to death air quality is of secondary importance but once a full belly's assured less urgent concerns start to get addressed.

By the way, now you see the true beauty of capitalism. Capitalism, as it pushes production to cheaper, less regulated, areas of the world, makes them more expensive, more regulated areas of the world. That's a feat all the hand-wringing and Kumbaya-singing have never accomplished.