Walmart Underscores Climate Goals Amid Corporate ‘Sustainability’ Push

Walmart is messaging plans for its operations to go fully renewable. 

The retailer has teamed with energy services company ENGIE North America on wind projects to channel renewable energy to “hundreds of stores, clubs and distribution centers” in Texas, South Dakota and Oklahoma, according to the companies. 

The move comes as Walmart has set a target of 2035 to become a “regenerative company powered by 100 percent renewable energy in our own operations.” The retailer has also previously indicated targets to achieve “zero emissions” across its operations by 2040. 

“Securing innovative, scaled energy transactions is another solid step toward our goal of being powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and achieving zero emissions across our operations by 2040,” Mark Vanderhelm, Walmart Inc.’s vice president of energy and facilities management, wrote in a company blog post. 

“With a mixture of infrastructure and innovation, we can set an example for what one company can do to move toward a cleaner future,” he wrote. 

The retailer said it has been increasing its reliance on renewable energy, which accounted for 36 percent of overall electricity needs in 2020, up from 29 percent in 2019.  

Renewable energy is generally becoming a growing component of energy sourcing in corporate America also in light of its costs compared to traditional fossil fuels. The international group the International Renewable Energy Agency found in a 2020 report that if solar and wind sources were to replace some 500 gigawatts of high-priced coal sources, it would save some $23 billion in annual power costs. 

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“Addressing the impact of global warming on the environment is obviously important, but there are other benefits to why renewable energy should be the future, and one of them is, costs can be lower, and they can also generate jobs,” said Julio Sevilla, associate professor in the department of marketing at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. 

Walmart’s action comes at a time when President Joe Biden’s administration, which has moved to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, is setting broad targets to slash greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. Such goals generally require corporate America’s participation, experts said. 

“The [Biden administration’s] commitment means that both at the government and the corporate level, we have to align our emissions with commitments made at the Paris accord,” said Tensie Whelan, clinical professor of business and society and director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

“And investors are [also] beginning to make commitments around reducing carbon emissions by those companies that they’re providing loans to or purchasing shares in,” Whelan added. “And they’re increasingly asking for disclosure around this. And they’re penalizing companies who have problematic exposure to coal or oil.”  

The corporate marketing around the carbon impact of products has become more amplified in recent years, according to a 2020 NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business study, with data from data analytics company IRI. 

The study, which undertook an analysis of sustainably marketed products and the practice of adding carbon labels to products, showed that in 2020, some $1.3 billion of products sold in the U.S. carried this type of labeling about being made with renewable energy. 

The Walmart blog post carrying its renewable energy announcement was followed by a brief survey question asking: “Based on this information, do you agree that Walmart is committed to operating more sustainably?” 

Consumers overall tend to view company operations holistically, as opposed to separating environmental actions from other aspects of business operations, experts said. 

“There may be a disconnect, particularly for companies with mixed reputations, between the actual progress a company is making, and how that translates into indirect value through the reactions of stakeholders to those sustainability actions,” said CB Bhattacharya, the Zoffer Chair in sustainability and ethics at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. Bhattacharya is also the author of “Small Actions Big Difference,” the 2019 book on corporate sustainability.

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