A Green Compromise: Target and the EPA in the 1990s

In 1997, Robert Devers, the mayor of Woburn, Massachusetts, declared the announcement of a new Target store as “a strong symbolic value that will force people to realize that the stigma is not forever and that communities can go forward.” Indeed, Devers did not exaggerate, for the new big-box store marked the first public-private partnership to redevelop one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the United States. The partnership was the culmination of environmental reforms throughout the 1990s. The decade featured a high point in American support for government action to address environmental issues. At the same time, this support collided with political partisan divisions over environmental reform, especially after the 1994 midterm elections. As major legislative actions to address environmental issues stalled or were watered-down during this period of congressional gridlock, the Environmental Protection Agency navigated the political terrain through administrative reform and partnerships with the private sector. Target Stores, the rapidly growing discount chain from Minnesota, emerged as a close ally to the EPA. The EPA promoted Target’s recycling and waste reduction programs as models for other companies. For companies like Target, such initiatives were more about economic incentives than an actual commitment to addressing environmental issues. As this paper argues, the relationship built between Target and the EPA during the 1990s helped to end decades of major environmental, regulatory reforms in favor of ones supporting the idea of corporate responsibility.