What if Wal-Mart goes green?

Walmart Logo with Recycling Symbol

According to a wide variety of recent articles, Wal-Mart is jumping onto the environmentalism bandwagon. These articles, based on an interview by Amanda Little with Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, suggest a huge new commitment to the principles of sustainability for this mega-villain corporation. I've read stories at the New York Times, at Grist Magazine, at BuyBlue.org and in several other publications now, and it seems like Wal-Mart has committed to spending $500 million a year on environmental programs. These programs will include greenhouse gas reduction, energy-efficient stores, and reducing packaging waste.

This is, for the environmentally concerned, a big deal. It is also a very complicated problem. I enthusiastically support any commitment to environmentalism, big or small. I want Wal-Mart's environmental programs to be wildly successful. I also can't possibly condone shopping at their stores.

Awkward situation, to say the least.

One of the reasons I can't ever like or shop at Wal-Mart (or other large chains, for that matter) is the way they can drive small, independent stores out of business because of the economy of scale. This very same reason, however, is why their environmental program has such a great chance of success - the commitment of an organization this large to environmentalism makes these environmental practices affordable. The ripple effect could be phenomenal.

Imagine, for example, that you're a company manufacturing widgets. You supply Wal-Mart with your widgets, as well as supplying several other chains and a whole host of small retailers. You package your teeny little widgets in great big packages. When Joe TitchyRetailer enquires about reduced packaging, you snicker and go on with your life. When massive Wal-Mart makes the same request - you immediately start a major redesign campaign and reduce your packaging. Does this reduced packaging only go to Wal-Mart? Probably not - why would you maintain multiple packaging programs?

All in all, I can only hope that Wal-Mart is sincere and that they carry out this promise:

In October, Scott announced a preposterously ambitious goal to transform Wal-Mart into a company that runs on 100 percent renewable energy and produces zero waste. Since then, he has impressed greens with specific commitments to cut the corporation's greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent over the next seven years, double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet within 10 years, reduce solid waste from U.S. stores by 25 percent in the next three years, and double offerings of organic foods this spring, selling them at prices more affordable to the masses.

- Walmart CEO H. Lee Scott

It's an incredible commitment, with potential for incredible results. If Wal-Mart can have the same impact on environmentalism that they did on consumer prices the world will change dramatically.

Wal-Mart is still on my shit-list. They're going to stay there because of their labor practices, monopolistic behaviors, and the fear that this promise is merely another deception. And there is still a potential for destructive side-effects - will Wal-Mart now put organic cooperatives out of business? Will small producers of organic crops need to consolidate into mega-farms in order to meet Wal-Mart's price demands? Will organic farmers have to "fudge" on their principles in order to increase supply?

We'll have to wait and see.

Updated by Joe Dolson on 24 August, 2009

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