Article — From the July 2012 issue

Citizen Walmart

The retail giant’s unlikely romance with small farmers

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The 25 percent rule is in fact still a Walmart guideline, though, as I would learn when I reached Bentonville, the company knows that number isn’t realistic for smaller-size family farms. Nathan Winters, a farmer who has written for the website Fair Food Fight, summed up the problem to me this way: “Fifteen acres does not produce a lot of food. And Walmart needs a lot of food. So will the farmers try to grow in size? Of course. . . . What are they going to do? They’re going to scale up. Buy bigger machines, take out loans, get big. What happens when Walmart changes its mind?”

Walmart insists its locally sourced produce initiative is a permanent part of a “new global commitment to sustainable agriculture,” as the corporate press release has it, “that will help small and medium sized farmers expand their businesses, get more income for their products, and reduce the environmental impact of farming, while strengthening local economies and providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food.” Agriculture is just one aspect of a massive sustainability push Walmart began rolling out several years ago, a very large, and very public, corporate commitment to preserving the earth, with the ultimate goal of 100 percent renewable energy and zero waste.

In 2005, then-CEO Lee Scott gave a speech broadcast live to all of Walmart’s 6,000 stores worldwide and to more than 60,000 of its suppliers. “What if we used our size and our resources to make this country and this earth an even better place for all of us?” he asked. But, he added, the motivation wasn’t purely altruistic. “Being a good steward of the environment and in our communities and being an efficient and profitable business are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are one and the same.” It’s a refrain Walmart has stuck to: This makes sense only if it is profitable. The economy, however, has not cooperated. And so green activists, many of whom have been encouraged by Walmart’s attempts to transform itself from a lumbering consumption machine into a lean, environmentally friendly animal, took note when, in March 2011, in the midst of the company’s worst domestic sales slump ever — profits had been flat or down for nine quarters (the latest numbers show a slight uptick) — U.S. division head Bill Simon warned the Wall Street Journal, “Sustainability and some of these other initiatives can be distracting if they don’t add to everyday low cost.”

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