BOSTON — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is developing about 5,000 acres a year in the U.S. for retailing, is looking to spruce up its environmental record.
The company on Tuesday announced a new habitat preservation program, “Acres for America,’’ in partnership with the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. During the next 10 years, Wal-Mart pledged a total of $35 million in grants with the stated mission of conserving at least one acre of habitat for each acre the world’s largest retailer develops for its own use.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., generated about $285 billion in revenue and had $12.9 billion in capital expenditures last year, most of which was channeled to build stores, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company has developed 88,000 acres in the U.S., said Sarah Clark, a spokeswoman.
The retailer, which this year embarked on a public relations campaign amid criticism and litigation on issues ranging from worker benefits to employee promotion policies, has also faced accusations of circumventing environmental statutes regarding construction sediment and runoff from its parking lots into creeks and watersheds. Wal-Mart paid $3.1 million last year to settle Clean Water violations in nine states, according to the Sierra Club, a conservation group battling big-box sprawl.
The partnership marks “a new day for Wal-Mart,” said Liz Madison, director of development for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “We’ve heard from top leadership of Wal-Mart that a new part of their corporate culture will be conservation.”
Foundation chairman Max Chapman Jr. said in a statement: “Wal-Mart is the first corporation to commit to offsetting its entire developed land use for conservation.’’
Clark said the program is a “demonstration that economic growth and development can go hand-in-hand with conservation.”
But Sierra Club spokesman Eric Olson accused Wal-Mart of “greenwashing” its history of poor environmental compliance. “They are trying to create an image, but the record doesn’t match,” he said.
Wal-Mart took out a full-page color advertisement in the Washington Post to tout the program. Clark said the announcement was unrelated to the company’s public relations effort, which has included print and television advertising, a media blitz dubbed “Facts Day” in January and a two-day media conference this month.
Wal-Mart on Tuesday handed out $8.8 million in conservation grants as part of its $35 million pledge. The remaining money will be spent at the rate of about $3 million annually from 2006 until 2015.
The initial grants cover 321,000 acres in five states. The largest tract is a 312,000 conservation easement in Maine. The money will also protect 1,225 acres in the Ozark Mountains, about an hour’s drive from Wal-Mart’s headquarters, said Scott Simon, Arkansas state director of The Nature Conservancy, a grant recipient.