Dear EarthTalk: I heard that Walmart is having a bigger positive impact on the environment than any other U.S. institution. What are they doing along these lines?
—R. Schlansker, Beaverton, OR
Walmart has indeed been working to clean up its image in recent years, and many environmentalists are pleased with the company's commitment to reduce its massive carbon footprint. Many, however, view the company's initiatives with skepticism, especially considering its overall impact on communities.
What's noteworthy on the environmental front is not so much the significant energy and emissions the company is reducing at its stores and distribution centers and in its vehicles, but the ripple effect that its new carbon-cutting policies are having on the entire supply chain. This March, Walmart CEO Mike Duke announced a new goal of eliminating 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from its global supply chain—the equivalent of taking more than 3.8 million cars off the road for a year—by the end of 2015.
"To find these reductions, Walmart will be asking its estimated 100,000 suppliers to cut the amount of carbon they emit when they produce, package and ship their products," reports Dominique Browning of Environmental Defense Fund, which has been a key advisor to Walmart on green issues. Browning cites Walmart's elimination of large laundry detergent bottles—since so much of them are water and energy-intensive to ship—in favor of concentrates sold in smaller bottles. As a result, concentrated laundry detergent is now the top seller at not only Walmart but at other stores, too. Walmart also convinced CD, DVD and video game makers to make their cases lighter to reduce transport carbon emissions, and they helped energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulb sales by spurring makers to refine their designs.
Many environmental and community advocates, however, consider Walmart's pro-green efforts as too little too late or insignificant in relation to the company's larger impact. Walmart Watch, a nonprofit group run by the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, says the company has paid numerous fines over the last decade for violating air and water pollution rules, and that's its green initiatives will easily be erased by its sheer growth which will mean more energy usage, more delivery truck trips and even more miles driven by consumers to get to Walmart stores that displaced smaller, more local ones.
Wake-Up Walmart, a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, says the company—which employs two million people in its 7,000+ stores—is also no friend to employees. Its average wage, says the group, is six percent below the Federal poverty level for a family of four and its move into urban areas, aside from destroying small businesses, often depresses other nearby wages where similar jobs otherwise pay as much as 18 percent more than Walmart. Further, says Wake-Up Walmart, the company pays $5,000 less yearly to full-time female employees than male ones, and its health plan is so poor that it forces many employees to rely on publicly assisted healthcare, at taxpayer expense.
Walmart Watch says the company has also been fiercely anti-union: "Labor law violations range from illegally firing workers who attempt to organize
to unlawful surveillance, threats and intimidation of associates who dare to speak out." Meanwhile, Walmart made a $14.3 billion profit in 2009, and its CEO earned $12.2 million in 2008, 587 times the annual income of an average full-time Walmart associate.
Dear EarthTalk: At a meeting of a local art association, an artist who paints in acrylics said that doing so is more eco-friendly than painting in oils. I somehow doubt it. Aren't acrylics petroleum based? And aren't some oil paints made from natural materials?
—Linda Reddington, via e-mail
Of course, there are no easy answers. There are environmental and health issues with both oil and acrylic art paints. The big downside of oil paints is the paint thinner required to clean them up. While some of the pigments in oil paint might be toxic or poisonous depending on color—reds, yellows, some blues and many whites are produced using potentially toxic heavy metals—the paint itself is typically made of food-grade linseed oil, which could hardly be more harmless to the environment (where it came from, after all). But oil paint is notoriously hard to clean up; getting those brushes, palettes and work areas clean requires the use of paint thinners, such as turpentine or mineral spirits, that are not only potentially toxic if used improperly but give off noxious odors and are highly flammable.
As for acrylic paints, they are water-based so clean-up is a breeze: Just wash it down the drain with some warm water, no paint thinner required. But acrylic paint is a petroleum-derived polymer, i.e. plastic. While cleaning it up might be easier than cleaning up oil paints, do we really want to be rinsing plastic down our drains? How good could this be for surrounding ecosystems? The other negative, of course, is that just buying them contributes to our reliance on petroleum.
So what's a green painter to do? One option is to go for so-called water mixable oil paints that, according to manufacturers like Grumbacher, appear and behave in the same manner as traditional oil paints in every aspect except when it comes to clean-up—like acrylics, they thin and clean up with water instead of noxious chemicals. Water mixable oils are ideal for those sensitive to chemical fumes. Art supply chain Utrecht sells a wide variety of water mixable oil paints online and at its retail locations across the U.S.
If you must use traditional oil paints—many professional artists just prefer them for their thickness, color brilliance and other qualities—you can go with a brand that pays attention to the environmental impact of its products and operations. Oregon-based Gamblin Artists Colors Company uses only high-quality raw materials in its paints, avoiding preservatives that degrade the quality and release chemicals. Gamsol, the company's paint thinner, uses mineral spirits that evaporate much more slowly than turpentine, which has a reputation for irritating breathing passages and inducing nausea. Every spring the company cleans its machinery, and instead of throwing the filter dust out, it recycles it and gives away tubes of the resulting gray paint free to artists through retail locations, and hosts a contest for art created with the unique color.
Another way to go would be truly all-natural. Berkeley, California-based GLOB crafts its paints from food-grade botanical extracts, so it's even safe for kids aged three and older. Colored by real fruits, vegetables, flowers and spices, GLOB paints are all-natural, non-toxic, and free of chemicals, parabens, petroleum and synthetic preservatives. The palette is limited to just six colors, but creative artists should be able to mix to their heart's content. The paints can be mail ordered, and they come in a dry powdered format, whi
ch saves weight, money and energy when shipped—users add water and start painting.
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