Walmart's renewable-energy activities provide a perfect example. Six years ago, the company announced that it was setting a goal of being "supplied by 100 percent renewable energy." Succinct, powerfully stated goals are a signature of Walmart's sustainability campaign -- in part, it seems, because journalists often repeat these goals verbatim, so they function like stealth marketing slogans that infiltrate media coverage. Walmart's renewable-energy goal has been especially effective on this front, appearing in thousands of newspaper articles and countless blog posts. Many of these stories use the goal as a jumping-off point to highlight the retailer's renewable-energy projects, which include putting solar panels on 130 stores in California and buying 180 million kilowatt-hours of wind power in Texas annually. These stories create the overall impression that Walmart is making great progress on renewable energy.
But what if, rather than repeating Walmart's stated goal of 100 percent renewable power, these news stories had instead reported that the company currently derives less than 2 percent of its electricity from its solar projects and wind-power purchases? That's not a figure Walmart has published, and journalists have done little to bring it to light. At its current pace of converting to renewables, it would take Walmart about 300 years to get to 100 percent clean power. Some of its competitors are already there. Kohl's and Whole Foods (both of which, I should add, have their own problems when it comes to the gap between their environmental PR and reality) have fully converted to renewable power, as have many independent retailers.