GreenBiz.com ran a story today entitled WalMart Sustainability Index Means Big Business. @greenforyou Twittered about it, and that got me thinking... At face value, it would seem that WalMart's newfound insistence that its suppliers lower their carbon footprint and "ensure ethical production" would be a good thing, right? How could it ever be bad to be more efficient?
Read the 15 questions on WalMart's Sustainability Product Index questionnaire and you'll see that most of them are completely toothless. But that isn't the point of this post. Here’s the point:
WalMart is essentially doing a tune-up on an engine that is doing more harm than good, from a sustainability standpoint. They’re saying “how can we do the same old thing more sustainably?” But the same old thing pretty much defines the unsustainable. How so? It’s all a matter of scale:
*A sustainable place is an Accessible Place, where you have a choice of how to get around (especially including the self-propelled choices of walking and biking,) and are not forced to drive everywhere. What does Wal-Mart do for walkability? Well, have you ever seen anyone walk to a WalMart? Part of the reason is because WalMarts, especially the new SuperCenters, are so large that they have to have a massive sea of parking out front. It’s a known fact that people don’t like walking any further than they have to through a sea of parking. So the physical size and design of WalMarts essentially prevent walkability in their vicinity.
*A Sustainable place is also a Serviceable Place, where you can get the basic daily services of life within walking distance in your neighborhood. But no WalMart could possibly survive with the business they would get from the 600-2,500 residents of a typical neighborhood. The only place they could possibly survive would be in Manhattan, and last time I checked, Manhattan doesn’t seem to be WalMart’s sweet spot. Here’s another angle: WalMart is well known for killing the local merchants, who are the very businesses that people are much more likely to walk to. So WalMart has a hideously bad effect on Serviceable Places.
*A Sustainable place is also a Securable Place, but how often do drug deals go down back behind a big box? Again, it’s not because the big box retailers like WalMart don’t care, but simply because the physical size and design of big box retail creates bleak, abandoned places out back that nobody wants to be, where illegal activities can easily take place.
So WalMart, due solely to its physical size and design, can have a crippling effect on the sustainability of a place. What about the sustainability of their buildings?
*A sustainable building must first of all be a Lovable Building. If it cannot be loved, it will not last. Has any human on earth (outside the Walton family and other shareholders) ever claimed to love a WalMart building? Case closed.
*A sustainable building must next be a Durable Building, because if it doesn’t last, then its carbon footprint doesn’t matter once its pieces have been carted off to the landfill. But WalMarts are notorious for being bulldozed in only 15-20 years. Again, case closed.
*Sustainable buildings must be Flexible Buildings, so that they can be used for many things over the centuries. But WalMart buildings will never get the chance to be flexible because they’re so famously unlovable. In fairness, they are sometimes converted to muffler shops and pawnshops to extend their lives a decade or two as the neighborhoods around them decay because of the toxic effect of the unlovable and dilapidated big boxes. But who believes that any current WalMart has any chance of standing a century from now?
*This brings us to the last foundation of sustainable buildings, which is that they must be Frugal Buildings. Here, WalMart is doing a few things right. They’re changing their light bulbs for ones that are more efficient. That’s good. Cue applause. But they’re missing much bigger opportunities to be frugal simply because the physical size of the buildings is so large. For example, daylighting and cross-ventilation are two powerful methods for making a more frugal building. But when the nearest exterior wall is a couple hundred feet away, then it’s almost meaningless.
Here’s the bottom line: It’s not because WalMart executives, managers, and employees are bad people. Not at all. it’s simply an unavoidable effect of the physical size of the stores. WalMart simply can’t help it, once they let the stores get this large... they simply cannot help it.
For a view of the opposite extreme, which is the micro-shop, and the scale implications of micro versus mega, check out this blog post on Mike & Patty’s in Boston. It’s an extreme example, but sometimes extremes illustrate principles better than the ordinary.
~ Steve Mouzon
Thursday, September 24, 2009 - 07:49 PM
I totally agree! WalMart not only needs to change its size, but where it's located within towns. But to do that they would have to reshape their whole marketing values. No more large parking spaces, that are only filled during holiday seasons! No more large structures, that are not only eyesores but are also killing the landscape. Instead they would have to line their fronts with local businesses. How easy would it be for them to reverse what happens on the inside--meaning make their vision centers, nail places, subways, etc, accessible from the outside. That would not only change the way the BIG Boxes look but would allow for more walkability. This is not the only way to fix WalMart but that would be a great start!
Thursday, September 24, 2009 - 08:06 PM
Not that I'd ever be one to defend Walmart, but on the issue of daylighting, my local store has many skylights, with photo-sensors that turn the lights on and off as the level of daylight warrants.
Thursday, September 24, 2009 - 09:22 PM
While all the bad stuff about Wal-Mart is true, many of those items are actually fixable. Just to pick one: what if Wal-Marts had a street front presence, and moved the giant parking lots out back, where there was a second entrance?
I loathe Wal-Mart... but when I lived out in the country and Wal-Mart was 8 miles away and had most everything and the alternative was 100 miles or round trips and an entire day of errands in the city... I admit that Wal-Mart seemed the lesser of two evils. Even if it did mean dealing with the horrendous aisle clutter and auditory trauma.
Wal-Mart isn't going away. Pushing them to make positive changes is the best I think we can hope for. Let's not have great be the enemy of good when we're dealing with a entity that's here for at least the foreseeable future.
Friday, September 25, 2009 - 07:33 AM
TCM & Nicole, you're exactly right... they could actually re-shape themselves. Matter of fact, during the Mississippi Renewal Forum after Katrina, we worked with WalMart to redesign their proposed new Gulf Coast store to do all the things you describe, basically turning it into a couple blocks of Main Street, where their pharmacy became a drug store opening to the street, etc. That effort failed and they went back to their old model, which was a huge disappointment, but at least the conversation started. The point is that they can fix so much of what's wrong with them simply by different (and better) design.
Anonymous, the skylight sensors are a good thing, but the problem is that skylights are the worst type of opening. Because they're flat rather than vertical, they let in the most heat in summer, when the sun is high in the sky, and the least heat in winter, when the sun is lowest. So they may help daylighting, but they're hurting the heating & cooling load.
Friday, September 25, 2009 - 11:28 AM
Steve, I'd never thought about framing the killing of mom & pops quite in that manner. It's appropriate.
Growing up in Beaufort, South Carolina, WalMart was a godsend and a curse. It killed many long-standing small businesses, and when Lowes moved in it was the death blow for many of the survivors, including one of our longest-running businesses, a hardware store founded in 1907.
Those stores have not sat derelict interminably, but their successful replacements have noticeably moved from servicing mainstream consumer needs toward niche (especially luxury) markets and tourist nick-nacks. In Beaufort, WalMart's cut-throat strategy hasn't created long-term dereliction, so much as a change in the function of the retail in our old walkable core, from serving central to ancillary needs, and from a local base to a tourism base. I think this still makes your point.
When I last lived there, Beaufort had a population of about 12,000. Besides Water Festival tourists and Marine Corps boot camp graduation attendees, I think it's safe to say that local residents are driving our WalMart's sales... Enough so that when I was in high school, WalMart abandoned their maybe 10 year old building, clear-cut more forest directly adjacent to it, and literally put a Super WalMart up smack next to the old store.
The old Wally Word building is now a Best Buy and some other franchise, plus a half-empty sea of parking. The old co-anchor, Winn-Dixie, has suffered a slow death at the hands of the new Super WalMart. A string of other franchises have tried unsuccessfully to replace it.
Despite having a beautiful and historic downtown, little else is walkable in Beaufort. I grew up having to drive for anything as simple as a quart of milk. I see WalMart's effect as twofold. First, as described above, it impaired the independent functionality of our existing walkable communities. Second, it squandered an opportunity to anchor a mixed-use community and create a second population center in close proximity to the first. The majority of Beaufort's businesses are between our downtown and WalMart. If WalMart, much less our other strip retail centers, had been developed differently, there would be a much higher demand for housing in the city center, and a capacity to have more functional transportation options.
As of 2006, WalMart accounted for 8 of the 400 richest Americans, worth a combined total of ~$83.7 billion (source - Forbes). Why then, can't they afford to be stewards of good urbanism? Why can't they afford to build multi-level structures with parking garages, like I've experienced in cities and TOWNS all over Europe? If they make deals with residential and commercial developers to build up the surrounding properties, they should get their money back.
Steve, why did the Gulf Coast store fail? If you could do it again, what would you change?
Saturday, September 26, 2009 - 06:54 PM
While I agree with most of your points, It is possible to have large stores that are lovable, durable & accessible. Just think of the traditional urban department store. They were multi-story, located in the most walkable T-6 parts of the city, well served by transit & many also had parking garages. Some cities still have their department stores & Macy's in NYC is still "the world's largest store" but most mid-size & smaller cities have lost their department stores through the deliberate disinvestment policies of the large corporations that took over most of the formerly locally owned department stores. There are probably hundreds of abandoned department stores in downtowns around the country. Why can't they be used by retailers such as Sprawl-Mart or Target? These stores are generally catering to lower to middle income people who are likely to live close to a downtown & can't really afford to be spending a large proportion of their income on excessive driving. It seems like a natural, but it almost never happens.
Friday, October 2, 2009 - 12:38 PM
I have to agree with all the points of your blog. I live just outside Michigan City, Indiana, where a new super Wal Mart went in last summer. The city already had a Wal Mart, you understand, and that building is now empty, a tenemant in the middle of town. Wal Mart is just one of many many box stores that line the entrance of this once charming, and now dreary small town. They are so resolutely ugly that it hurts the eye to drive by them. The downtown, once thriving and full of small stores, is dead, with empty buildings everywhere. YOu can hardly walk to any store location in the city. They are all set within acres of parking. This is not a vision of the future. I contrast this with French towns and villages, where all the beautiful old buildings are repurposed so that the character of the town remains the same. So you have automobile dealerships and hardware stores tucked inside stone buildings that may have once been part of a castle. It's really enchanting by contrast.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009 - 08:19 PM
If you substituted "suburban big box stores" for Wal-Mart I'd agree with the post. But except in the very smallest towns, Wal-Mart usually comes to a landscape that is already very suburbanized, so if there wouldn't be a Wal-Mart on East Sprawl Highway there'd be something else that is just as bad.