Staring at the tip of the sword of Odysseus, Circe had a change of heart. She swore that she would do no harm to the Greek hero, and she undid her spell upon Odysseus’ soldiers, turning them from pigs back into men. But Eurylochos—the only one of Odysseus’ men to escape the swine-making spell—remained skeptical of Circe’s “transformation.”
In a modern-day version of the Odyssey, Circe is played by Wal-Mart, Odysseus’ sword is represented by sanctions meted out against the retailing giant for its environmental law violations, and doubting Eurylochos is the environmental community.
In April Wal-Mart pledged to donate $35 million over the next ten years in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). Called “Acres for America,” Wal-Mart will set aside an acre for conservation for every acre it has developed or will develop under its ten-year plan. Projects based at the Grand Canyon, Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, and the Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership in Maine were among those receiving the first awards. Wal-Mart spokesperson Tara Stewart says the offer is retroactive to 1962—the year of Wal-Mart’s founding—and includes “every store we’ve owned, operated, and leased.”
The amount of land to be set aside from the initial round—321,000 acres—more than doubles what Wal-Mart currently occupies or plans to occupy over the next ten years. Stewart says Wal-Mart’s acreage stands at 88,000. The company’s expansion plans call for 5,000 acres a year over the next ten years. This means Wal-Mart plans to put a store, parking lot, or distribution center on more than 138,000 acres by 2015.
While the object of Acres for America is to offset the environmental impact of a corporation such as Wal-Mart, skeptics abound. Jody Jones of the Maine Audubon Society is one. Maine Audubon was among several groups contesting a proposed Wal-Mart store to be built near the Penjajawoc Marsh in the central Maine town of Bangor. Penjajawoc is home to hundreds of bird species, some of which are listed statewide as endangered.
Jones is happy that the Downeast Lakes will be receiving a grant from the Acres for America to purchase 312,000 acres of forestland. But she notes that this land, in the northern part of the state, is less desirable than, say, the area around the marsh. “Habitat and real estate are alike in that it’s all about location, location, location,” Jones observes.
There is other land, including that near Penjajawoc and in the southern part of Maine that Jones says has huge conservation needs—and provides homes for many endangered species—but because it is highly desired by developers, it has a high real estate value. Jones wonders where Wal-Mart’s conservation priorities were when it was trying to get permits for the land near Penjajawoc. “A year and a half ago, there was an unwillingness to work collaboratively,” she recalls. “They fought tooth and nail—tooth and nail—to build what they wanted to build, the way they wanted to build it.”
Might Wal-Mart be using Acres for America as a public relations ploy to soften objections to even more acreage than that currently on its drawing board? “We’re going to offset an acre for an acre,” insists Wal-Mart’s Stewart. “We’re not going to develop more to offset more; that’s the first time I’ve heard that question.”
Even on its face, an acre for an acre is low-balling in the realm of mitigation efforts, says Jones. “It’s not one-to-one,” she says. “It’s a higher ratio because as you remove habitat you have to preserve even more to make up the difference.”
That Wal-Mart is participating in this program is cause for celebration from the perspective of the NFWF’s executive director John Berry. The concept came from one board member who broke down conservation efforts into four facts: Wide areas of land are sought for conservation; a lot of money is needed to get the land; a lot of American companies leave a big environmental footprint; big box stores like Wal-Mart are doing well financially. This set of facts led NFWF to Wal-Mart’s headquarters a year ago. “This is the biggest capital infusion to preserve land in the history of this country, and it’s the largest charitable donation we’ve ever received,” says Berry.
But is it real, or is it well-timed PR? Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch says Acres for America must be viewed against the backdrop of the giant retailer’s behavior on other environmental issues. A timeline of the past 18 months shows a different side of Wal-Mart and would read something like this:
- January 2004: Wal-Mart agrees to pay $400,000 to settle claims that its Sam’s Club stores flouted the Clean Air Act in 11 states.
- May 2004: Wal-Mart is fined $3.1 million by the US Department of Justice for environmental violations due to excessive stormwater runoff at construction sites in nine states.
- October 2004: Artists and intellectuals in Mexico petition President Vicente Fox over Wal-Mart’s plans to build a store at the foot of the 2,000-year-old pyramids of Teotihuacán.
- November 2004: Wal-Mart is fined $765,000 for violating Florida’s petroleum storage tank laws and blocking state inspectors from reviewing maintenance records at the company’s automotive service centers.
- February 2005: Wal-Mart is hit with $160,000 worth of fines for violating the Clean Water Act at construction sites in Georgia.
“Wal-Mart’s record tells a very different story,” says Sefl. “They have a pattern where they violate the law, wait until they’re caught, pay the fine, and then they move on.”
Another fact that makes Sefl question the effort is that Wal-Mart hasn’t changed its behavior in any way other than partnering with NFWF. In the Odyssey, the skeptical Eurylochos was eventually proven wrong with respect to Circe. Circe did change her behavior and helped Odysseus and his men return to Ithaca.
But this proof took time, as Sefl observes about Wal-Mart. “Look, we’re strong supporters of a corporation’s efforts to become a better citizen, but change of this magnitude doesn’t happen overnight.”