Big Box Superstores

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The question being asked here is, “Is Wal-Mart bad for the environment?”   My answer to this is yes, it is bad for the environment; as are other big box, chain superstores.  Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, and other big box superstores of the like nature largely contribute to the phenomenally vast and ever growing environmental concerns that we are now experiencing in today’s society, and these stores do this in a number of different ways.  These huge superstores also illustrate and perpetuate value systems that simply are not environmentally friendly or environmentally sustainable. 

            In the article, “Thinking Outside the Big Box: Sustainability, Environmental Ethics, and Superstores”, the author points out some of the negative impacts superstores such as Wal-Mart have on the environment.  Among these impacts are air, noise and light pollution, loss of green space due to parking lots and large buildings, and the dependence on cars to shop in these stores.  In other parts of the article she talks about the throw away mentality that superstores like Wal-Mart and Target promote through the promotion of cheap goods and the phenomenal amount of carbon emissions (which cause global warming, i.e. climate change) these immense businesses are responsible for through running their stores and warehouses and of coarse, shipping, storing and distribution of their goods.  Big Box superstores also play a huge role in the disappearance of Ma and Pa or family run small businesses and contribute to the degeneration of the local economies in which they place their stores.  

            The air pollution big box superstores are responsible for is what I think to be the most important negative impact we should focus on.  Not that the other concerns listed above aren’t important or that I won’t discuss them, they are important and I will discuss them to some extent, but air pollution seems to be the one issue most of the country is greatly concerned about due to the correlation between air pollution and global warming.  Amy Ihlan, the author of the above noted article, is responding to the new attitude Wal-Mart has recently displayed regarding the environment and sustainability.  They are currently working on becoming more sustainable and/or cost efficient, as are other large corporations and businesses.  One of their main goals when doing this is to greatly reduce carbon emissions, a form of air pollution that causes global warming or what is now being called climate change.   One big box superstore is thousands of square feet, and it takes a enormous amount of energy and resources to operate one.  There are thousands of these kinds of stores in our country alone, most operating 24 hours a day.  Not to say that cutting carbon emissions by switching to the use of clean energy and more efficient light bulbs wouldn’t be a great thing for these behemoths  to do or that it wouldn’t have a large impact on the amount of carbon emissions they would be responsible for, but is this really enough?  Converting the trucks they use for shipping their goods to hybrid, or at least more fuel efficient technology is also a great and admirable goal, but is this really for the environment?

            Other negative impacts big box stores have on the environment are a loss of green space due to construction and placement of parking lots and huge buildings, noise and light pollution, disappearance of Ma and Pa businesses, and the degeneration of local economies, as I have already mentioned above.  Although these impacts are “smaller” and seemingly less important they are still concerns to be addressed.  Noise and light pollutions can be disruptive to the natural growth patterns of plant life.  We need plant life to help absorb carbon dioxide and to release oxygen required for the life of humans as well as other animal species.  If plants aren’t able to grow properly carbon absorption is less effective.  Loss of green space due to parking lots and huge building sites also contributes to this specific problem, except in this case there is a total loss of plant life as opposed to only a reduction in quality of plant life.   This, in turn, also means less carbon absorption and less oxygen production.

              When a superstore like K-Mart or Wal-Mart moves into a community, especially a smaller community like Bemidji, or Thief River Falls, Minnesota, other businesses (mostly family and small businesses) close down because they can not compete with the low prices offered by big box superstores and in turn lose customers and go bankrupt.  This contributes to a higher unemployment rate and larger amounts of welfare and human services.  Higher unemployment and poverty levels have a known correlation to higher crime rates and a higher demand for mental health services.  All of this “collateral damage”, as some might call it, seeps further down into the current environmental problems through less funding available for environmental protection and public education of these concerns, and also through poor waste management in growing impoverished areas and so on and so forth down the line to the contribution of the collapse of local economies. 

            Amy Ihlan, in her article “Thinking Outside the Big Box: Sustainability, Environmental Ethics, and Superstores”, says, “Clearly it will not be possible to sustain lifestyles that value and depend on constant driving and high consumption of artificially cheap goods.  But that is exactly the lifestyle and value system that Wal-Mart and other big box superstores promote, perpetuate, and profit from.” (Amy Ihlan, Macalester College)  She further calls for a change in value systems among people to be successful at living more environmentally friendly.  The current value system, one that big box stores perpetuate, is not a viable system if we want to sustain the environment.  This system values mass and unnecessary consumption.  The author is saying that we need to be more frugal and simplistic if we are to achieve the great goal of sustainability.   This would require goods to be longer lasting and more efficient to produce and distribute.   Cheap goods that are minimally used and perpetually thrown away and replaced are the vast majority of what big box superstores have to offer and distribute to the majority of the public.  They are in effect telling us it is okay to consume, waste, and consume some more.  We are able to do this because these stores offer merchandise at very low cost to us.  This is in no sense of the word frugal or simplistic as the author has called for in her article.  The very foundational nature of big box superstore such as Wal-Mart is contrary to a value system based on environmental sustainability and simplicity.  Also you are constantly driving to these superstores to replace goods and consume more stuff you are told you need in mass quantities and hauling it home in your vehicle.  Gone are the days of walking up to the corner market after work for a few things on your way home or before you hop into the car.  Efficient living is just not possible with the existence and exploitation of these big box superstores.

            Put very basically, big box superstores such as Wal-Mart are absolutely bad for the environment and have and adverse affect on the goal of environmental sustainability.  Although they may take measures to reduce carbon emissions and make other changes, as I have mentioned above, towards being environmentally sustainable they are nevertheless at their very core contrary to the very ideal of environmental sustainability.   I further feel that these superstores are environmentally unethical in that they profit from this destructive value system they promote and perpetuate, and they make said changes in an effort to be sustainable only in order to save themselves money and thus further profit from the destruction they cause.


“Thinking Outside the Big Box: Sustainability, Environmental Ethics, and Superstores”,  By Amy Ihlan, Macalester College, Philosophy Department


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