When you hear the words "local and sustainable," that giant Wal-Mart down the road is probably not the first image to pop into your mind: the company boasts 8,300 stores worldwide (more than half in the U.S.), employs 1.4 million workers here (and another 700,000 abroad), and reported $405 billion in sales in the last fiscal year.
But the mega-retailer is working hard to change that perception—mindful, no doubt, both of consumers' interest in all things green and of the potential savings in adopting certain sustainable business models. Most recently came Wal-Mart's announcement of what it's calling a "new global commitment to sustainable agriculture," with a focus on supporting smaller-scale farmers. The plan, announced in mid-October, calls for the company to sell $1 billion worth of food produced by small- and medium-sized farms by the end of 2015, doubling its sales of local produce (defined as sold in the same state in which it's grown) and increasing its purchase of "select" U.S. crops.
In addition, Wal-Mart promises to provide training to 1 million farmers—half of them women—in "sustainable farming practices," and to increase the income it pays small and medium growers by 10 to 15 percent.
The plan also includes measures to reduce the amount of resources used and waste created in food production, with the goal of reducing food waste by 10 to 15 percent, and to increase its use of "sustainably sourced" palm oil and of beef raised in ways that don't contribute to deforestation.
"Through sustainable agriculture, Wal-Mart is uniquely positioned to make a positive difference in food production —for farmers, communities and customers," CEO Mike Duke said in announcing the program. "Our efforts will help increase farmer incomes, lead to more efficient use of pesticides, fertilizer and water, and provide fresher produce for our customers."
Wal-Mart is, indeed, uniquely positioned to change the way food is produced and sold in the U.S. and around the world. As the Bigfoot of the retail world, the company has shaped business practices across its entire sector, with many of its influences—driving down retail employee wages, forcing suppliers to cut production costs to compete for Wal-Mart's business—having less than healthy results. Will this new agricultural program brings changes for the better?
So far, Wal-Mart's news is meeting with cautiously optimistic reviews. Margaret Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' food and environment program, told the New York Times that the program is "very impressive. ... It's encouraging that Wal-Mart understands that the path forward in agriculture isn't through making the big bigger, it's really through encouraging the small- and medium-sized farms." Mellon did, however, express disappointment that the program does not directly address organic food or genetically modified food. And critics such as the union-supported Wal-Mart Watch point out that the company has contributed substantially to urban sprawl and unsustainable development through the proliferation of its stores around the country and across the world.
What will Wal-Mart's new program mean for Valley farmers? "I would say, if one of the largest businesses in the world & is going to do the right thing, in the short term, that's good," Phil Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, told the Advocate. The South Deerfield-based nonprofit supports local agriculture, including through its successful "Local Hero" campaign, which helps farmers find markets for their products.
Korman called Wal-Mart's new program "an interesting, complicated issue." Given how many people already buy food at Wal-Mart, the company's commitment to increase the amount of that food that is locally produced is a "good sign," he said. Korman is also heartened by Wal-Mart's specific focus on smaller-sized farms, of 50 or fewer acres. The company's program should also open more opportunities to local farmers, who are always looking for new markets, Korman added.
But there are limits, of course, to how sustainable a business operation as large-scale as Wal-Mart can be. For one thing, Korman pointed out, Wal-Mart is not a locally owned business, but rather an international corporation with its headquarters in Arkansas. "There's a huge dollar-circulation difference between when you go and spend your dollars in a locally owned store," he said. A local store is more likely to spend its profits close to home, and do business with other local operations. "Wal-Mart cannot offer that to our local economy."
And given Wal-Mart's ability to dominate a market, Korman added, it's important to keep an eye on the economic effects it has on the world of small-scale farming. "Farmers need to get a fair price for the work they do. Will Wal-Mart have a vested interest in that?" Korman wondered. "Wal-Mart is not in the business of having local farmers thrive. Wal-Mart is in business to make sure Wal-Mart makes more money. They don't have a social mission."