When President Barack Obama takes the microphone in front of a Walmart store in Chula Vista, California, to announce a new energy efficiency initiative and again highlight his stated concerns over a warming climate, there will no doubt be many standing to cheer. But there will also be plenty scratching their heads.
With the 2014 midterms only six months away and the 24-hour news cycles already turning attention to the next presidential election, it is looking increasingly like the second-term president is thinking about legacy building, with tackling climate change and reducing income inequality clearly on the short list. That is not a bad thing, of course — the climate needs tackling and income inequality needs reducing. But why, then, use Walmart as a backdrop?
“What numbskull in the White House arranged this?” wrote former President Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary Robert Reich on his Facebook page Thursday.
Organized labor has long been angered by the policies of the nation’s largest big-box retailer, accusing Walmart of depressing wages and denying benefits to workers while fighting attempts at unionization. There is an ongoing National Labor Relations Board investigation into charges the company discriminates against worker whistleblowers.
America’s biggest private employer is also the biggest consumer of taxpayer-sponsored aid. Walmart employees make up the largest group of Medicaid recipients. They are the largest group on supplemental nutrition aid (commonly called food stamps). Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., estimated that the average Walmart employee costs taxpayers an additional $1,000 for public assistance.
All of this while the company benefits from a host of tax breaks and bringing in record revenues. Stephen Gandel, a senior editor at CNN Money, estimated that Walmart could afford to give its workers a 50 percent raise.
On the energy and climate fronts, Walmart fares no better.
Though Obama will trumpet the solar panels on the California store and the company’s website boasts, “We're examining every aspect of our carbon footprint as we work toward our goal of being supplied 100% by renewable energy,” Walmart is actually well behind its competition. Only 3 percent of Walmart’s electricity comes from wind and solar, down from 4 percent two years ago.
Walmart is also a climate killer. The retailer’s greenhouse emissions were up 2 percent last year, placing it just behind Chevron on the list of the biggest climate polluters. And the retail trends of centralized superstores and on-time inventory, led by Walmart, have drastically increased the number of miles driven by consumers for shopping and the amount of goods moved by trucks (as opposed to rail, which has a far smaller carbon footprint). Consumers drive over 2,000 miles more per year to shop than they did in 1969, and shipping products consumes 440 percent more energy than it did a generation ago.
Transporting the consumer goods of American life now makes up 7 percent of total U.S. energy use — and that is just in domestic shipping; it does not include the increased amount of product imported from around the globe.
The list of environmental and labor question marks is almost as long as the list of times the Obama administration has used a Walmart as a backdrop for a speech (remember, Michelle Obama used a Walmart as the stage for the launch of her nutrition initiative), have sent administration members to Walmart-sponsored events or have made appearances at fundraisers with ties to the mega-retailer (the president spent Thursday night at a fundraising event sponsored by Yahoo chief and Walmart board member Marissa Mayer).
And to put a bow on it, Obama’s new pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the Office of Management and Budget director, but before that, a president of the Walmart Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, responsible for over $182 million in grants [PDF] to national organizations, charities, church groups and events, many with close ties to municipalities where Walmart has business interests.
OK, so, maybe the “Why Walmart?” question isn’t an interesting one for a cynical age, but if Obama is concerned about his initiatives or his legacy, it is still a question that needs answers.
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