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Sunday, Jul 26, 2009, 7:01 am

Weekly Mulch: Market-Driven Sustainability

By Raquel Brown
Last week, Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil and the American Automobile Association (AAA) announced new programs that promote sustainability and a cleaner planet. The three corporations may have turned over a new leaf, but their efforts may actually be a case of corporate greenwashing. In today's economic climate, many companies are taking advantage of consumers that don't have the funds to be choosy about the environmental-friendliness of their purchases.

Wal-Mart announced its plans to develop a sustainability index to measure the environmental impact of its products, establish international sustainability standards and offer transparency to consumers. This program, described by The American Prospect’s Alexandra Gutierrez as “nutrition labeling, but for the planet,” is very ambitious. Wal-Mart will work with a consortium of universities, retailers and government agencies to determine each products ranking over its life cycle, then relay that information back to consumers.

But when has Wal-Mart ever acted in the environment's best interests? In a two-part blog for Sojourners, Tracey Bianchi writes skeptically about Wal-Mart's ulterior motive, given the corporation's reputation of using unethical business practices to maximize profits.

“Wal-Mart’s green claims are good, but the reality is that they are not a free ride to environmental bliss. They are, at best, a $400+ billion change in the way we do business in the global marketplace. At worst, they are greenwashing and a sort of salve to the part of our soul that silently moans, “'How you consume comes with a price tag that you cannot afford,'” Bianchi writes.

But at the end of the day, Wal-Mart’s true intentions are irrelevant, says Jodi Kasten in Salon. As the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart has an incredible amount of influence over which products are made and sold. The company can use its clout and market-driven incentives to curb pollution and implement environmental changes. This approach could yield more effective results than climate change legislation. Retailers who might be willing to flout the law aren’t willing to risk losing customers.

“Uncovering greenwashing is an Olympic sport amongst environmental activists. I’m all for that. I think that abuse of the systems which are already in place give consumers a false sense of environmental awareness. But, we do have to consider that ANY system of sustainability information is better than what we have now, which is nothing,” Kasten writes.

Climate criminal ExxonMobil pledged to invest $600 million in alternative-energy technology last week. After adamantly refusing to adopt alternative-energy for years, the oil giant is partnering with Synthetic Genomics to create an algae-based biofuel. Does this partnership mark a paradigm shift for ExxonMobil? Hardly.

As Grist’s Joseph Romm reports, ExxonMobil is still funding climate change skeptics, even after promising to no longer finance organizations “whose positions on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner,” as stated in the company's 2008 Corporate Citizenship Report.

ExxonMobil also helped fund Spanish economist Gabriel Calzada’s study condemning green jobs, as Osha Gray Davidson notes for Mother Jones. Many conservative Congressmen, most recently Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), have used Calzada's study to back their opposition to the ACES bill.

Finally, AAA is now extending its services to cover bicycles. Despite a long history of lobbying against the environment, including strong opposition to public transportation funding and criticizing The Clean Air Act, the company has experienced a sudden change of heart. According to Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones, it all breaks down to competition. The Better World Club (BWC) rivals AAA as an environmentally friendly auto club that provides services that range from discounts on hybrid car rentals to eco-travel services. For the past seven years, BWC offered the nation’s only roadside assistance program for bicycles.

BWC has tried to distance themselves from AAA, claiming that they "are nothing like ... other auto clubs," and even linking to information about AAA's anti-environment lobbying. "We have the same reliable roadside assistance, but we have a unique policy agenda." AAA stands to gain new customers who use alternative modes of transportation and muscle out an organization that had good intentions from the start.

In the long run, one green initiative doesn't make a corporation environmentally sustainable. While these companies try to shine green in the public eye, it remains to be seen as to whether they will actually advocate for positive change, or continue to push their own political agenda.

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