Executives from Wal-Mart's textile group say they're still learning about sustainability and admit they've made some mistakes in the initial stages of the company's campaign to replace many of its conventionally grown food and fiber products with organics.
Those comments seemed to mollify somewhat the American Cotton Producer leaders and members of The Cotton Foundation attending the joint annual meeting of the two cotton groups in San Antonio Aug. 2-3.
At least there wasn't any blood flowing on the floor after the Wal-Mart executives left the podium, something that was not a given considering the depth of feelings engendered by statements attributed to Wal-Mart officials about conventional cotton production.
The National Cotton Council invited the Wal-Mart executives to the joint session after NCC Vice President Andy Jordan, cotton producer Don Cameron and others met with Wal-Mart officials and attended its “Earth-to-Earth” Conference.
Last October, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced he planned to move the $312-billion company in a more environmentally friendly direction that would include selling more products “that are safe for your family or produced in a more sustainable way.”
In a speech to company employees last October, Scott boasted that the company had sold 190,000 organic cotton yoga outfits at its Sam's Club division in 10 weeks, “and we saved the equivalent of two jumbo jets of pesticides.”
At the joint meeting, the Wal-Mart representatives back-pedaled on such claims, noting the company had been misquoted in an article that said it planned to buy 10 million metric tons of organic cotton in 2006.
“The figure was actually 10 million pounds,” said Kim Brandner, senior corporate manager, sustainable textiles, adding that organic cotton still will account for less than 1 percent of the textile products in its stores.
“There is no way that you will go into one of our stores and see an enormous section that is strictly organic products,” said Scott Wattenberger, director of new business ventures, global procurement for Wal-Mart. “We realize our role at this stage of the game is strictly that of a student. We're here to learn from you.”
Texas producer Craig Shook, the newly elected president of The Cotton Foundation, chided the Wal-Mart representatives for statements like those by Scott about “toxins” getting into streams and rivers. “You're indicting us and the products on your shelves when you make statements like that,” said Shook.
“We're very interested in sustainability, just like Wal-Mart,” said Bill Lovelady, former American Cotton Producers' chairman. “Today, we cultivate an area about the size of South America to feed and cloth the world. If we switched to organic, we would have to cultivate an area the size of South America, North America, Europe and a part of Asia.”
“There are farmers who farm conventionally who are good stewards and are sustainable,” said Brandner. “Some are not. We want to be partners with you and learn. Maybe we can help each other achieve a more sustainable agriculture.”