It's becoming increasingly difficult to vilify Walmart, despite its tendency to put smaller retailers out of business. The retail giant last year unveiled an ambitious sustainability index for its suppliers, and now the it's announced plans to double the sales of fresh produce sourced from local farms in U.S. locations by the end of 2015.
The move is part of a larger set of global sustainable agriculture goals unveiled by Walmart this week. Other goals for 2015 include selling $1 billion in food sourced from one million small and medium farmers, increasing income of those small to medium farmers by 10 to 15 percent, and providing training to one million farm workers in sustainable farming practices. Walmart also plans to invest over $1 billion in its global fresh food supply chain over the next five years.
And in an apparent effort to lure customers who shy away from traditional big box retailers, Walmart will open up dozens of 30,00 to 60,000-square-foot Neighborhood Market grocery stores over the next few years, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Walmart is going so far as to expand certain cash crops in entire regions of the U.S. "In the I-95 corridor along the East Coast, there is a high concentration of women and minority-owned growers that will benefit as we expand purchases of vegetables, such as bell peppers, cucumbers, and squash to take advantage of the growing season beginning in Florida and moving northward," explained Leslie Dach, Walmart's EVP of Corporate Affairs, in a media conference call. "The Delta states have a long history of cash crops such as tobacco and cotton, which are in decline. We are replacing these with produce such as blueberries in Mississippi and Arkansas where the longer growing season is ideal."
On one hand, Walmart has crowded out many of the mom and pop grocers that used to provide communities with local produce. But the company's size means that it can quickly change the entire agriculture system in the U.S. and beyond. As long as it continues to wield its powers for good, we won't complain.
From the archives: The Wal-Mart You Don't Know