By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
NORTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. — The Black Friday Walmart protests drew attention to wage inequity and workers’ rights, but the nation’s largest private employer also has been in the news recently for its environmental shortcomings.
The company received positive press in November, when it announced plans to install additional solar panels atop some of its 4,300 U.S. stores. But its renewable-energy efforts have a lot of ground to cover.
In October, the Institute for Self-Reliance released a report detailing how the Walton family, the majority owners of Walmart stock, is using its ownership of First Solar, the nation’s largest installer of large-scale solar projects, to promote policies that hamper the solar industry.
Namely, First Solar is the lone solar-energy company to support the highly controversial fees imposed by utility companies on residential solar projects.
“Indeed, First Solar’s model for energy production looks a lot like Walmart’s model in retail: highly concentrated ownership with few economic benefits flowing to the rest of us,” according to the Institute for Self-Reliance report.
First Solar helped Arizona become the first state to impose the new fees on residential solar panels. Installations in Arizona subsequently dropped 40 percent, and its one of the few states that to lost jobs in the solar sector in 2013.
Walmart also has its own political action committee that funds candidates who back the fossil-fuel industry. The Institute for Self-Reliance report reveals that the Walton family donated $4.5 million in recent years to organizations such as Americans for Prosperity and the American Enterprise Institute, which promote state campaigns to oppose net metering and refute climate change.
The report concludes that beneath the Walton family’s public environmentalism lies a “deeply destructive, corporate economic model.”
It’s this economic model that draws protesters to its stores. New Bedford City Council member Dana Rebeiro was one of a dozen demonstrators kicked out of the Walmart here on Nov. 28, after they delivered a letter advocating for better labor practices to the store manager.
Many New Bedford residents work at the store, she said, “and they need public assistance because they can’t make a decent wage and that affects our city.”
The group, led by the Student Labor Action Project, United Steel Workers, United Healthcare Workers East and the New Bedford Workers, took to the parking lot to distribute flyers until police arrived.
“(Walmart) really sets the labor standards for other retailers,” said Lily Hung, an organizer with Jobs With Justice, outside the Walmart. Employees, she said, “really want respect and want to be listened to.”
Other reports have claimed Walmart only improves its environmental impacts and employee benefits when it sees a near-term financial benefit.
An article by the environmental news website Grist concluded that Walmart’s renewable-energy use dropped in recent years despite its long-term pledge to increase green-power consumption. The reason? The company only invests in renewable energy in places where it saves money, while it cuts its green-energy use when costs increase.
In Texas, Walmart reduced its renewable-energy purchases significantly after the cost of wind energy increased slightly, according to the Grist article.
While the discount retailer has been talking about installing solar for a decade, only about 10 percent of its stores currently have solar panels. According to Grist, about 40 percent of Walmart’s electricity comes from coal, which works out to 4.2 million tons of it annually. Its solar installations are, so far, in regions with low coal use, such as California, and is absent in coal-heavy states such as Illinois and Missouri.
Simply put, Walmart's profits-first model is designed to benefit a few wealthy shareholders, Rebeiro said.