Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Can Wal-Mart do more for the Environment than the Body Shop?

Dame Anita Roddick, who sadly died yesterday aged just 64, will be remembered as the pioneer of ethical retailing. Although she is most famous for the Body Shop's stance "Against Animal Testing", she was active in many areas, including the active sourcing of ingredients from under-developed parts of the world, and charities associated with issues such as HIV-AIDS. In the Body Shop's early years they would take back their trademark simple bottles for refilling, and were also pioneers in renewable energy, investing in a wind farm to power their Littlehampton headquarters.

So it may appear to be almost sacrilege to suggest that Wal-Mart can do more for the environment than the Body Shop. Isn't this the company that famously prevents unions from operating in its stores, and has a reputation for squeezing down prices from suppliers to the level where they are barely economic? Yes it is, but it is also a company that has very publicly committed to making real cuts in its carbon emissions. Bentonville AK is taking a stance on this issue that Washington DC seems to be incapable of. And when the bosses at Wal-Mart tell their store managers to cut energy consumption they do: if not, your job may be at risk.

Wal-Mart's sourcing policies may also help. They have recently mandated that all their US suppliers of detergents must use double concentrate (or more). This will massively reduce packaging and waste, as well as transportation energy. And because of Wal-Mart's massive influence and buying power, almost all US detergent manufacturers are voluntarily following suit. Wal-Mart can achieve what Washington cannot; its detractors have accused it of applying "European standards" (now there's a real insult!) to the environment.

So has Wal-Mart turned from environmental foe to friend? It's too early to be sure; if management does not see a bottom line improvement it may well change its mind, although savings from energy efficiency should be a no-brainer. And critics point out that Wal-Mart's own CO2 emissions are just the tip of a fast-melting iceberg. Much more energy is used throughout the supply chain and by enticing citizens to drive to its big boxes in the suburbs. The Wal-Mart supercenter by the freeway has driven the Main Street Piggly-Wiggly out of business1.

But are Wal-Mart and the Body Shop so different? Aren't they both selling us, the consumer, the goods that we want in a way that we like at the price that we're willing to pay? And if the English middle classes like fancy "ethically sourced" ingredients, rather than a US redneck's industrial product, does that say more about the retailer or the consumer? Do we need the Body Shop's bottles of coconut oil and lime shower gel any more than Wal-Mart's value detergent offering? Is Littlehampton (or Paris, where Body Shop's owners, L'Oréal are based) really nearer to Bentonville than we think?

And to answer the title question, Wal-Mart could do more for the environment than the Body Shop; I just hope that they will.

1 English readers should read this sentence as "The Asda superstore on the bypass has driven the High Street Walter Willson out of business"

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