Can Big Box Retail Ever Be Sustainable?

Even with its environmental-friendly pledges, as long as customers keep driving to visit its massive stores, Wal-mart isn't likely to become 'green'.

"Here's the key issue. Wal-Mart's carbon estimate omits a massive source of CO2 that is inherent to its operations and amounts to more than all of its other greenhouse-gas emissions combined: the CO2 produced by customers driving to its stores."

"The dramatic growth of big-box retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot, over the last 15 years has been mirrored by an equally dramatic rise in how many miles we travel running errands. Between 1990 and 2001 (the most recent year for which the U.S. Department of Transportation has data), the number of miles that the average American household drove each year for shopping grew by more than 40 percent."

"Shopping-related driving has been growing so fast that even a phenomenal improvement in the fuel economy of cars would soon be eclipsed by more miles on the road. Nor is CO2 the only environmental impact of all of this driving. Tens of thousands of acres of habitat have been paved for big-box parking lots, which, during rainstorms, deliver large doses of oil and other petrochemicals deposited by cars to nearby lakes and streams."

Full Story: Keep Your Eyes on the Size



Michael Lewyn's picture

too many big boxes . . . or too few?

The article claims that the expansion of big box stores has increased driving. But paradoxically, the answer to this problem might be MORE big box stores rather than fewer. If big box stores expand into more urban areas, more people might be able to reach them by walking or public transit. For example, there are already K-Marts in midtown Manhattan and downtown Philadelphia; there is no reason in principle why Wal-Mart and Target cannot emulate them. Ironically, the political clout of unions has prevented Wal-Mart from moving to New York City.

Big Box Stores Increase Driving Distance

Because they are larger than traditional stores, they have to be spaced more widely.

Corner grocery stores were so small that everyone could have a store within walking distance.

1950s supermarkets, at 20,000 or 30,000 square feet, were spaced more widely, so people drove a mile or two to get to them.

Big box stores, at over 100,000 square feet, must be spaced even more widely, so people drive further to get to them.

Of course, sprawl is also a cause of longer driving distances. In Manhattan, pedestrians could conceivably support a big-box store, if it were conveniently located. But where are the big empty locations in New York? Generally in old industrial districts that have very few people within walking distance.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

But there doesn't seem to be a problem...

getting big box bookstores in pedestrian-friendly areas. If there's room for Barnes & Noble I can't see why, in principle, there's no room for Wal-Mart (though admittedly more space is involved).

I don't think the scarcity of "big empty locations" should be a problem. The intown Barnes & Noble and Borders stores (not just in NYC, but even in less prosperous DC and Philadelphia) were not "empty" or "old industrial districts" when the bookstores took them over. (To be fair, I don't know exactly what those spaces were being used for- but I'm sure they were not brownfields, since DC has one big bookstore two or three blocks from the White House and another in the heart of Georgetown).

Barnes & Noble Vs. Wal-Mart

What is the square footage of the average Barnes & Noble and of the Average Wal-Mart? I don't know, but I suspect the Wal-Mart is about three times larger.

Big-box grocery stores also tend to sell things in large-size packages, so large that you need a car to carry them. I think this is why they are called "big box."

Where I live, we do have trouble getting even Barnes & Noble in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. The local Barnes & Noble and Borders are in Emeryville, a city of malls next to the freeway exit.

Barnes & Noble had a store in a pedestrian-friendly location in Berkeley. Shortly after Cody, our largest independent bookstore, they announced that they were closing this local Barnes & Noble that competed directly with Cody's - expecting that more people will drive from Berkeley to Emeryville to buy books.

Since the big-box stores are larger, they have to be spaced more widely, so the average customer travels a longer distance to get to them. Judging from our local experience, this principle also seems to apply to Barnes & Noble.

Charles Siegel


Yes, why not?
Big box design has mostly served automobilists. When it really aims to serve pedestrians, it will becomes sustainable in many ways.

Dr. Nam-Son Ngo-Viet is a planner / architect and researcher. His research focuses are physical form and human perception of urban centers in Pacific Rim countries.

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