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Beijing Besieged by Walmart: Development and Sustainability in the Partnership between China and Wal

"Beijing Besieged by Waste" (dir. Wang Jiuliang)

An article by Orville Schelle appeared recently in The Atlantic on the increasingly inextricably relationship between Walmart and China – the home of much of Walmart’s manufacturing and rising numbers of consumers:

These two colossal entities, with such utterly different provenances – the world’s largest corporation and the world’s most populous country – have somehow managed to meet and maintain a state of relatively steady symbiosis, each fulfilling vital needs for the other. Just as China is providing Walmart with the lifeblood of its commercial growth, Walmart is helping the Chinese state not just to satisfy the escalating demands of its consumers but to extend Beijing’s regulatory writ. Together, they are engaging in a bold experiment in consumer behavior modification, market economics, and environmental stewardship. Just how this unlikely partnership will affect the evolution of these two larger-than-life entities is as yet uncertain. But one thing is already clear: how Walmart and China interact with each other over the next decade will be critical to the fate of the planet’s environment.

Schelle reports that in 2008, the behemoth corporation’s plan to “save money by becoming greener” was implemented at Walmart’s China Sustainability Summit.

According to Edward Humes, the author of Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Walmart’s Green Revolution, [consultant Jib] Ellison insisted [prior to new green initiatives] “that inefficiency and waste were omnipresent, even in a notoriously stingy company like Walmart, with the waste not only damaging the environment, but damaging the company’s bottom line as well.” Identify and cut out the waste in areas like packaging, shipping, and energy use, Ellison said, and [CEO Lee] Scott would solve his company’s image problem and make a better return on investment.

Examining the massively wasteful culture proliferated in China in the name of “development” and brought to light in Wang Jiuliang‘s 2011 documentary Beijing Besieged By Waste, this partnership of “sustainability” between Walmart and Chinese government, manufacturers, and workers, seems ostensibly to be a move in the right direction.

“The government is still the most powerful force in China, and they have just adopted their 12th five-year plan, emphasizing food safety and domestic consumption,” David Gao, Walmart’s government-relations director for China, told me in the company’s Shenzhen headquarters. “If we want to push sustainability efforts and grow here, we have to have government support. So we want to align our strategy with government interests. And quite frankly, because the overall business climate for sustainability is favorable, I can’t think of any reason for not doing this.”
“Now, whenever we create a new towel, we always think about the environment!” pipes up Li Yongzhi, the assistant manager [of Walmart textile supplier Loftex] , reminding me of how the heads of Revolutionary Committees used to boast during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution about how many jin of corn they could harvest from so many mu of land, under the guidance of Chairman Mao.

Yet, there remains much concern that the bonds between Walmart and China run afoul, failing to address the deeply un-sustainable material culture Wang despairs in Beijing Besieged and leading to even broader global ramifications.

[Walmart’s leadership] certainly seem to have arrived at a profitable and mutually advantageous partnership with the Chinese government. As China’s economy has decentralized, and many provincial and municipal governments have become rich fiefdoms riddled with corruption, Beijing has struggled to deal with tens of thousands of local polluting factories and hundreds of thousands of small-scale food producers, many of whom have been wantonly violating environmental regulations. But in large, well-organized companies like Walmart that operate nationally in China, the government has found auxiliary sources of public education, control, and regulation – all at no extra public cost. “Yeah, I worry that people will read my book and think that I have drunk the Kool-Aid,” says Edward Humes, reflecting on his admiring study of Walmart’s green progress. “When I started, I didn’t imagine I would be convinced that Walmart was green. And actually, they are not green, but they are a lot better than they were. And the efforts they are making are influencing not only their suppliers, but other businesses as well. Now Walmart is acting something like a private regulator. Nonetheless, the nature of their outsourced business model is not, ultimately, sustainable. But,” he says, laughing at the irony of what he is about to say, “we have created a situation where crazy-sounding things make sense.” In fact, one could say the same thing about China, which – after so many decades of defiant proletarian opposition to capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism – has embraced the American-style market and is ardently following the Walmart path to prosperity. Indeed, allowing, even encouraging, people to consume as much as they want, or can, has become one of the Chinese Communist Party’s key strategies for political legitimacy and social stability. Party leaders may label their version of development “scientific” or “sustainable,” but it’s still development. The bitter reality is that even if unrestrained consumerism becomes less environmentally destructive per unit of production than it was in the past, it is still unsustainable in the long run. So even as this most innovative of corporate and statist green strategies may represent an environmental breakthrough and good business for Walmart, and good politics for the Chinese government, it may nonetheless end up being very bad business for humankind.


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