The Cost of Consumerism

Now Magazine has published a great little article called The Greening of Walmart in which they point out that the slow embracing of environmentalism by large corporations is something of a mixed blessing to the environmental cause. A skeptic can’t help but look for a catch. At the very least, there’s usually a feeling that a corporation is taking a few tentative steps in the right direction simply to boost its image as a good corporate citizen, even while its main business model continues to be as destructive as ever.

A laundry list of WalMart’s evils can be found in the excellent documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price, but one part in particular stuck in my mind. It was the part where an interviewee described Walmart as a Chinese company operating on US soil with US management. The real secret to the low prices, of course, is the ability of Walmart and its suppliers to have products manufactured in third world countries, where the labor is dirt cheap, and then ship the completed materials back home to pass on those savings to North Americans.

Naomi Klein’s No Logo delves deep into the nature of “multinational” corporations; an essential point is that physical distance has little meaning. If a raw material is a few cents cheaper in one country, it will be purchased there, and perhaps shipped to a second country that has ability to do the initial processing at a low cost. Everything may then be sent to a third country for manufacturing, then to a fourth country for packaging, and finally back to the US for sale in stores that are located outside downtown centres and require all customers to drive to them.

Imagine that almost every consumer product you purchase is put together this way, from running shoes to computers to MP3 players. The amount of wasted oil and pollution generated by continually shipping heavy raw materials and items around the world is incalculable. As is the case with commercial agriculture, the true cost of this wasteful manufacturing process is hidden. The price tag in the store is low, but we are all paying with higher oil prices and billion-dollar hurricanes egged on by climate change.

But now Walmart is the leading purchaser of so-called “green power” from a local company called Bullfrog Power. Green power is a fantastic idea: essentially, you sign up to pay a little more for your hydro, and the company invests that money accordingly so that a proportional amount of solar, water, or wind-generated energy is put into the grid. Of course the actual electricity “flowing” into your home isn’t necessarily green; but you are making a little dent in the amount of electricity generated by nuclear or coal fired plants by offsetting your own usage.

Walmart stores are huge, so having many of them running off green power is a good thing. Any step in the right direction brings us closer to the finish line. But, at the same time, they shouldn’t be let off the hook that easily; this sort of change is only a drop in the bucket compared to the damages that their business models cause.

Other businesses that are generally considered environmentally unfriendly by nature are also eagerly polishing their images. The oil company Chevron has created an entire web site devoted to discussing issues like environmentalism and peak oil. I attempted to join the discussion, however gave up after my various attempts to register were mysteriously rejected.

On the Petro Canada web site, a story of environmental good will (a water conserving pipeline) is prominently displayed at the top of the very front page, immediately below the corporate logo. Shell’s site is a bit less elaborate, but they do have a prominent Environment & Society section designed to head off detractors.

The good news is that corporations are seeing that the issue of the environment is important, and that many of their consumers are demanding more. But baby steps are just that; small changes that only nibble at the edges of our real problems are not enough.



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