Is Wal-Mart’s eco-consciousness in China more than PR?

Sunday is shopping day in the Imagethief household, so this morning Mrs. Imagethief, Zachary and I bundled ourselves up and headed out to Wal-Mart.

Before you gasp in a fit of effete surprise, let me explain. As a card-carrying Bay Area intellectual snob, my pedigree is more Whole Foods than Wal-Mart, even if Whole Foods is basically just Wal Mart for Prius-driving gourmets (well, and my mom). But in my neighborhood in Beijing  walking-distance supermarket options are limited to the eye-wateringly expensive import-barn in the basement of Shin Kong Place (RMB35 for four kiwi fruits? Sure!); the fast-declining Bonjour, in the basement of the equally fast-declining Sunshine 100 (like Carrefour without the lingering veneer of French-ness and, in winter, heated like hell’s supermarket); and the Wal-Mart at Wanda Plaza.

OK, we have a Jingkelong, too, but it’s not much use if your shopping needs extend beyond soft drinks, instant noodles and strawberry-flavored UHT milk. Once upon a time we had a Jenny Lou, but Jenny apparently decided our neighborhood was for losers and moved down to the accursed Jianwai Soho instead. So Wal-Mart it is. Plus, they deliver, which is essential when your shopping needs include kitty litter for two.

With Wal-Mart fresh in my head, and fresh kitty litter in my guest bathroom (for the cats, not for the guests, although there have been some parties…), I was therefore interested to see a Washington Post article covering in mostly positive terms Wal-Mart’s efforts to get its Chinese Suppliers to improve their environmental and labor standards (part of a special report called, “The Climate Agenda.”):

As a result [of Wal-Mart’s urging, Hong Kong-based soap and cosmetic manufacturer] Lutex has been paying attention to more efficient light bulbs, better ventilation and less packaging. It switched from Styrofoam to recycled paper and saved enough Styrofoam to cover four football fields. And Lutex, which has been here since 1991, says it treats four tons of wastewater that it used to dump into the municipal sewage line. That water was supposed to be treated by the city, but like three-quarters or more of China’s wastewater, it almost certainly wasn’t.

“We heard that in the future, to become a Wal-Mart supplier, you have to be an environmentally friendly company,” [CEO Benny] Fung said. “So we switched some of our products and the way we produced them.”

Wal-Mart has more than 10,000 suppliers in China. In addition, about a million farmers supply produce to the company’s 281 stores in China. If Wal-Mart were a sovereign nation, it would be China’s fifth- or sixth-largest export market. So the company hopes that small measures taken by all suppliers start to add up. Its 200 biggest suppliers in China have already trimmed 5 percent of their energy use.


In October 2008, Wal-Mart held a conference in Beijing for a thousand of its biggest suppliers to urge them to pay attention not only to price but also to “sustainability,” which has become a touchstone for many companies.

“For those who may still be on the sidelines, I want to be direct,” Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott said sternly. “Meeting social and environmental standards is not optional. I firmly believe that a company that cheats on overtime and on the age of its labor, that dumps its scraps and its chemicals in our rivers, that does not pay its taxes or honor its contracts will ultimately cheat on the quality of its products. And cheating on the quality of products is the same as cheating on customers. We will not tolerate that at Wal-Mart.”

Well, if he says so.

My first reaction to this story was, “What a PR score!” Cynical me wasn’t really prepared to consider if there might actually be something to this. But might there be real business motivations for moves that seem antithetical to a company with a mission to drive costs to the absolute lowest level?

One possible answer to that question can be found in a post at the well-known “Naked Capitalism” economics blog. Yves Smith suggests three factors that could motivate Wal-Mart to put real effort into pressuring its Chinese suppliers to improve. They are:

  • Creating an “insurance policy” against possible American trade restrictions that might be based upon setting minimum environmental and labor standards.
  • An effort to differentiate itself in the Chinese market by demonstrating attention to food quality standards and environmental issues.
  • A move to appease evangelical Christians who increasingly see earth-stewardship as part of their religious duty.

In fact, two out of those three things (see if you can spot which two) are still essentially public relations. Personally, I have a hard time believing the third is anything close to being a sufficient motivation for a serious revamp of Wal-Mart’s Chinese supplier relationships, but, then, I live a long way from the American heartland and am thus not well attuned to its priorities.

The second point seems plausible, but as a regular Wal-Mart China shopper I can attest that Chinese shoppers seem perfectly enthusiastic about Wal-Mart already. Wal-Mart also does a brisk trade in allegedly organic Chinese produce (we buy it, but I’m really not sure how far to trust the “organic” claims). At any rate, as an approach it sure couldn’t hurt, unless it starts leading to significant job losses at Wal-Mart suppliers in China, in which case, all bets are off.

Ultimately, although the impact is in China, I still see this as primarily a move to influence the customers and activists back home in the US who have the greatest ability to influence Wal-Mart’s business. China environmental and labor issues are important in China, of course, but arguably not as important as they are in the US. (Next up for trouble: Apple? Don’t miss the bizarre fanboy comments.)

As for me, I’ll take a pass on the live soft-shelled turtles (where are the PETA people?), but the produce section isn’t bad and you can’t beat a fuzzy car-seat cover that carries the inscription, “Space cat who dreams of happiness!” If only I had a car.

Space cat who dreams of happiness.

Space cat who dreams of happiness.

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