State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Dear Environmentalists, We Must Talk About Business

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time on the Climate and Society blog

By Yang Zhang, C+S ’18

“If we want to make the world a better place, why are we still working with Walmart?” This was a question a fellow intern asked me at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) this summer. It wasn’t the first time that I felt deterred to defend big business, fearing that may make me look bad. Like my fellow intern, many environmentalists think it is a betrayal for any environmental groups to work with big business, let alone one as big as Walmart.

walmart storefront
As the largest company in America, Walmart represents a huge opportunity to tackle climate emissions. Photo: Mike Mozart via Flickr CC by 2.0

But the history of environmentalism tells us naming and shaming alone is not the pathway toward constructive debates, let along meaningful outcomes. The pressure is on us to make a change, and we can’t afford to leave anyone behind.

From everything we have learned from the C+S program, there is one thing that keeps me awake at night. Even if countries across the world all fulfill their greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges inked in the Paris Agreement, we are not likely to keep the global temperature increase within 2°C of pre-industrial levels.

Environmentalists around the world are exhausting all the options, from suing the fossil fuel companies to trying to persuade people to eat less meat. Recent International Energy Agency data revealed an unexpected increase in energy sector emissions after three years of remaining flat. It shows everyone needs to do more to cut emissions before it is too late.

That means we need to be pragmatic. There are genuine and legitimate concerns about big businesses’ role in fighting climate change. New research suggests that since 1988, “100 companies have been responsible for about 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.” But we shouldn’t turn our backs to the great potential for big business to achieve more significant carbon reductions. Big scale means big change. If we want to change the world, we have to work with big forces.

Take working with Walmart, which could be a game-changer all on its own. According to a 2016 EDF report, Walmart “drives $482 billion in sales, outpacing the second largest company in the U.S. (Exxon Mobil), by $100 billion. Walmart now has 11,500 stores in 28 countries and is the world’s largest employer with 2.2 million employees. Thirty-seven million customers visit Walmart each day.” The company has enjoyed a decade-long stint as a top global retailer. The staggering breadth of Walmart means that its corporate policy can have a ripple effect on countless brands, suppliers, farmers and customers across the world.

EDF, a group that has been a bellwether of American environmentalism since it first took the polluters to court to ban the pesticide DDT in the 1960s, decided to partner with Walmart to shape some meaningful changes. When EDF and Walmart first started to work together in 2005, the nonprofit was the only one to admit publicly that they were meeting with the retail giant.

One thing that strikes me about EDF is they have tried always to be inclusive, pragmatic and determined. The nonprofit played a crucial role in devising the cap-and-trade scheme to address acid rain in the 1990s. In 2010, the same merit helped EDF successfully persuade Walmart to promise it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from the supply chain and product lifecycle by 20 million metric tons by the end of 2015.

By having scientists, economists and researchers work directly with Walmart, EDF found, “a whopping 90 percent of Walmart’s greenhouse gas emissions were coming from its enormous supply chain—from farming to processing to distribution.” Among potential greenhouse gas emission sources along product lifecycle, EDF and Walmart identified five “hotspots” in 2010: fertilizer use, energy-efficiency products, factory energy efficiency, recycled content and food waste. The same year, Walmart and EDF, jointly announced an ambitious goal to “reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 20 million metric tons by the end of 2015.” The publicly committed goal and recognized hotspots opened up new opportunities for EDF and all the stakeholders.

For example, nitrogen-based fertilizer is used to grown corn and other commodities which, when used in a reckless fashion, can emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases and contaminate the soil and water. EDF’s analysis suggested that from corn-based foods to livestock feed, fertilizer use accounted for 43 percent of Walmart’s total footprint. EDF recognized the collateral benefits of improving fertilizer use efficiency, including less harm to the environment and more margins for farmers and Walmart, and the company launched a fertilizer optimization project in 2013.

EDF persuaded Walmart to ask for more products that consume fewer fertilizers over their lifecycle. EDF thinks “Walmart’s enormous purchasing power makes it worthwhile for suppliers to comply [with the higher fertilizer use standards]. So far, over 15 food companies representing 30 percent of the U.S. food and beverage market have committed to using fertilizer more efficiently.”

While EDF is driving the retailer to demand a less toxic production process, EDF also provides expertise and technologies in smart agriculture to help farmers maintain crop yields at a lower cost.

Following the same philosophy of partnership, both EDF and Walmart had once again become the game changer in green business. According to EDF, “by the end of 2015, we [EDF and Walmart] surpassed by 30 percent of our goal to reduce 20 million metric tons of Walmart’s supply chain emissions. It’s as if we took nearly 6 million cars off the road.”

To me, this feels like an impactful solution, especially since I believe a global issue like climate change requires scalable solutions.

As I mulled over this Walmart case and the whole idea of the green supply chain, a very similar concept came to me. In Chinese, “危机” means “crisis.” But if we separate the two characters, the first one “危” means “danger” or “peril,” and the second character “机” means “opportunity”—something John F. Kennedy noted at times in his speeches. It has also since has become a meme for salesmen, but I truly believe that there is opportunity within danger. It is time for us environmentalists to stick to what we truly value and believe, we need EVERYONE on board, to seize the opportunities among dangers. If not us, who? If not now, when?

This post was originally published on Columbia’s Climate and Society blog

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