By Jovanni Rodriguez
Last year Walmart Stores Inc. pled guilty in three criminal cases that were brought against them by federal prosecutors and a civil case brought by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Walmart violated the Clean Water Act which was designed to ensure the proper handling of hazardous pesticides and wastes and protect water quality. Walmart was also found to have had no programs in place to properly train its employees on hazardous waste management from a date unknown until January 2006. All of these violations ostensibly helped Walmart avoid the costs associated with proper hazardous waste management. As a result, the huge corporate retailer was fined a total of $110 million for its unlawful conduct involving crimes which were found to not only put the public and the environment at risk (though no one reportedly was seriously injured or killed), but also gave Walmart an unfair economic advantage over other American retailers.
Many issues revolving around the relationship between American corporations and environmental crimes are reflected in the recent prosecution of Walmart. Regarding accountability, one may question the harshness of fines against huge corporations, who are more than capable of paying a $100+ million fine and remain in business. Some may argue that public shaming and media coverage will be a better method of accountability for these huge corporations who work hard to keep an “environmentally friendly” image. However, it can be argued that most Americans’ media consumption lends them to know more about Kim Kardashian’s wedding than Walmart’s recent environmental violations and criminal actions.
A majority of cooperations which have a history of environmental violations actually sponsor 90% of the U.S.’s television programs, which leads to the underreporting of their serious environmental violations by the mainstream press. “The lack of stories is also accompanied by vigorous public relations efforts that function to cover up environmental harms” (Simon, 2000/2009). This phenomena is “greenwashing,” in which cooperations with poor environmental records attract eco-conscious consumers and attempt to obscure their environmental violations through public relation campaigns and sponsorships. Misleading product labels such as “eco-friendly” and “all-natural” are also methods of greenwashing, as major corporations pay “hundreds of thousands of dollars for environmentally themed advertisements” (Johnson, 2004/2009). Walmart engages in greenwashing and ironically helped finance the Earth Day restoration and cleanup program in the California state park system which took place in 2004– despite the environmental criminal activity it was also taking part in at that time and would be prosecuted for almost a decade later.
As a result of Walmart’s violations, the FBI and EPA also discovered problems at the recycling facilities used by Walmart. For example, Greenleaf LLC was also convicted of a Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) violation in 2008. Greenleaf is where Walmart’s waste and return pesticide products were processed for reuse and resale. One may question whether Greenleaf’s criminal role in this was due to their own accidental ignorance of what was being sent to their facility. Many argue that further research into these “upper-class” relationships is needed to better understand the issue of corporate corruption and crimes.
In addition to further research into corporate relationships, public awareness is also a necessity. If the profit-motive at all costs seems permanently engraved in corporate behavior and impossible to change, perhaps we can use culture and shift norms in favor of eco-friendly change. Nothing sways corporate behavior like public awareness and shame, as this affects profit. Stricter screening processes of corporations which claim to be “eco-friendly” would decrease the distractions these “greenwashing” corporations create. This would hopefully create enough public awareness to demand true eco-friendly corporations, and not just labels which create a false green illusion.
Jovanni Rodriguez is graduate student in the International Crime and Justice Masters Programat John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Jovanni graduated magna cum laude from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2012 after majoring in Criminal Justice. In 2012 she also became the first ever youth representative for the International Sociological Association (ISA) while interning at the United Nations, where she continued to work with NGOs for two more years. She is a full-time legal assistant at the Law Office of Nicholas M. Moccia, P.C. on Staten Island, New York. She is also a member of “Dino’s Ride Home,” a non-profit organization which works to prevent drinking and driving on Staten Island by providing bar patrons with free cab rides home. Jovanni’s career goals include combining her criminological research interests with her passion for international human rights and activism.