Walmart Redux: Citizens and Consumers

This content is written by Dominique Browning and originally ran on her EDF column, Personal Nature.

I wouldn't normally write about the same subject twice in a row, but the impassioned responses to last month's column on Walmart's move to cut carbon emissions from their supply chain made me want to give it another think. Thanks to all of you who took the time to be considerate, whether or not we agree. And a shout out to the poet!

The comments, many angry or hurt, suggest that we here at EDF haven't done a good enough job of explaining what we do, why, and who pays for it.

Reducing personal consumption won't by itself solve global warming

Let's start with the premise that when it comes to solving the climate crisis, simply reducing personal consumption is not enough. The problem is much too large, and developing far too rapidly. Plus, many people don't even yet feel enough concern about climate change to motivate them to make changes.

Consider this: What if, instead of committing itself to reducing carbon emissions, Walmart had simply said: "Who cares about global warming? We don't believe in it. We don't want to revamp anything until regulations force change." Ask yourself: Would we be better off?

This gets me to the work of EDF–harnessing markets to protect the environment by "making it profitable to put out less pollution" as president Fred Krupp says. EDF has been a pioneer and leader in working strategically with companies for 20 years. This is why I was drawn to their work in the first place; it manages the nifty trick of being idealistic, ambitious and pragmatic. EDF is dedicated to solving what I think of as the defining crisis of our century: mitigating pollution that began with the industrial revolution, and has been magnified by the post World War II chemical revolution.

EDF is interested working with market leaders–companies whose decisions affect whole economic sectors. So yes, EDF does support free enterprise, or capitalism. No, EDF is not against all consumption. Yes, EDF has a track record of protecting the environment. And most emphatically NO–EDF does not take money from its corporate partners. The environment is their only client. EDF is funded by generous individuals and foundations.

Remember these? You no longer see Styrofoam containers at most fast food restaurants because EDF worked with market-leader McDonald's to cut waste.

It's now 20 years since EDF first worked with McDonald's to reduce its packaging waste by 150,000 tons. This was followed by a highly successful project with McDonald's to curb the use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture. Since then EDF has worked with Whole Foods and Wegman's to clean up the shrimp farming industry; it has worked with Walmart to cut waste; it has worked with FedEx to develop hybrid delivery trucks, and in the process transformed the entire delivery industry. The list goes on.

"Markets by themselves, much like currents in a river, are neither good nor bad," says Gernot Wagner, an EDF economist who sees himself as a "pragmatic" optimist. "Properly guided, they can be a force for good. Entrepreneurs see environmental challenges as opportunities rather than hindrances."

It is interesting how many readers of last month's column frame their environmentalism as a choice between consuming or not consuming, forgetting, it seems, that we have to define ourselves first as citizens, not as consumers. Of course, every living creature consumes. The needless, mindless consumption that wastes precious resources, pollutes and even kills, is another matter.

LandfillTo change our throwaway culture, we must be citizens first, then consumers.Town Hall

All of us can be more watchful of our habits, without necessarily giving up on vacations, or raspberries in February. Every day scientists learn more about the consequences of our choices, whether in the metals in our fish, the emissions from our cars, the chemicals in our soaps, the microwave radiation from our cell phones or the fertilizers on our fields. Every day, it seems, we learn something more that inspires us to make adjustments in our consumption.

Personal action, however, can be expensive. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to buy a new car. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to install new geothermal or solar systems; not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to retrofit their houses with new insulation. Until the prices for many "green" items come way down, they will not be widely adopted. That does not mean we ought to shoulder a massive guilt trip–that would be inappropriate, and counterproductive. The burden of responsibility has to be on us collectively–on our governments, and our corporations, those entities that have the largest impact on our lives.

It is our job, as consumers, to decide how to spend our money. It is our job, as citizens, to decide how to spend our energy. Speak out, lobby, protest, persuade, agitate, march, sit-in, write, sing, or dance. Do what you can. I believe we should be angry, and that our voices should be harnessed to demand better leadership from our elected and appointed officials–and our media.

Why is it that as the effects of global warming intensify, polls show that fewer people feel it is of significant concern? Those of us whose job it is to communicate the findings of scientific research have only ourselves to blame.

People often ask me how I feel about "preaching to the converted" in this column. I think we can see in the wide-ranging responses to Walmart's decision to cut emissions that there is no consensus among environmentalists–much less the general public–about how to move forward. There is no such thing as "the converted." Anyway, I have an aversion to that phrase, as it implies faith, as does the idea of "belief" in climate change, and faith and belief are not the appropriate response to peer-reviewed scientific data. Simple learning and understanding will suffice, as will putting out accurate, verifiable data to the contrary. So far there isn't any sound science behind the claim that global warming doesn't exist.

It is every citizen's job to get smart. You don't have to become a climate scientist and reanalyze data, necessarily–just as you don't have to become a cell biologist to accept a doctor's recommendations. Read up on the science, learn the facts, and stop mumbling politely when someone tells you that what you see all around you during these "extreme weather events" as we now call them (as though they were some form of sport), isn't really happening.

Shop at Walmart or shop at the bodega on the corner, but make sure that's not the only way you are putting your money where your mouth is.