How Good is Good Enough?

Cartoon by John Darkow

A few years back, in the middle of a cultural studies seminar that sidetracked into a tag-team Wal-Mart bash, the woman sitting next to me rolled her eyes. “This argument is so last year. Can we get over Wal-Mart already?” she said. I’m one of the few Americans left who’s never been inside the warehouse-sized stores, so I couldn’t say anything. I’ve never been able to contribute to the rhetoric as anything more than a theorist and the arguments against the chain do seem insurmountable.

With the chain’s new campaign to showcase themselves as environmentally friendly, they’ve opened an experimental store in Texas run by renewables, taken to carrying organic food products, and, at the same time, added more fodder for the anti-Wal-Mart activists. Frankly, I’m not sure how to feel about the whole thing. On the one hand, Wal-Mart exists already, so I should perhaps applaud their eco-friendly tactics (since the US doesn’t require them to do this stuff and people buy from them like crazy). On the other hand, they’re exploiting something I believe strongly in for a market gain and while they do so, they may water down the meaning of organics and environmentalism while still contributing to the unquenchable demand for consumables – itself un-environmentally-friendly. (Check out this previous Eco-Chick post for more on this argument.)

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an interesting two-sided argument on Wal-Mart’s newfound environmental ethics that included these new-to-me facts about the company’s future plans:

They’re talking about doubling the fuel economy of their fleet by 2015. They hired a consultant to go through their dumpsters and figure out what could be recycled and what couldn’t. They found out that 80 percent of the stuff in the dumpsters could be recycled and the CEO said, “Great, we’ll recycle that. We’ll tell our suppliers that we’re not going to accept the other 20 percent anymore. And we’ll get rid of our dumpsters.” They’ve adopted something called “the precautionary principle” for chemicals. If there’s a chemical that is suspected of being toxic and if there are safer alternatives that can be used, they will stop selling products that contain the potentially toxic chemical. That’s a 180-degree turnaround from the standard way of doing business in America.

Unfortunately, though, the rhetorical question concluding the discussion is the same one that repeatedly floats through my brain: “How good is good enough?” When I first moved to Germany and saw a McDonald’s refrigerated delivery truck that advertised itself as running on vegetable oil, I was both excited and appalled. Excited by a company using low-oil transportation. Appalled that McDonald’s had co-opted something green for their benefit (I mean really, isn’t it immensely cheaper for them to recycle the vast quantities of veggie oil than to use diesel?). Then I wondered: is altruism a necessity in the environmental movement or am I being too demanding?

I live in a country that successfully voted against Wal-Mart by spending their Euros elsewhere (though one study suggests it may have also been an inability to work with labor unions that provided difficulty for the Arkansans), so I still don’t have to personally worry about the Wal-Mart argument. Still, I wonder about the power of companies buying into the eco-movement in whatever ways they see fit. Does buying organic from a discount shop instead of a co-op dilute my choice? Is solar power really better if the panels are purchased from an oil company?