Larry Letters

Always Low Prices—and Now Eco-Accountability?

Wipe that smirk off your face: When America's largest retailer embraces environmentalism, we all benefit


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From a distance, the Wal-Mart in Aurora, Colorado, looks like any of the thousands of big-box behemoths operated by the world’s second-largest company. But a closer inspection reveals more than a few incongruous details: The parking lot contains recycled asphalt from a local airport runway. The heating fuel is a mixture of fry grease from the store’s deli and motor oil salvaged from its lube center. Electricity is supplied by solar panels and a windmill. In fact, nearly every component of this shopping mecca, which opened late last year, represents the cutting edge of sustainable design, from the waterless urinals to the ultra-efficient lighting system.

Do You Heart Wal-Mart?

Read our interview with Amanda Griscom Little to see what she thinks these changes mean for other mega-corporations, then tell us if you’re now more likely to shop at Wal-Mart.

To hear Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott tell it, the Aurora store is the retail outlet of the future, a pilot project and a model for development. And, as you’ve likely heard, that’s just the beginning of his grand green plan, which includes goals that border on the fantastical: Wal-Mart’s empire, he says, will eventually run on 100 percent renewable fuels, create zero waste, and sell an increasing number of sustainable products.

Bogus, you say? I was one of many who struggled to suppress a gag reflex at the coupling of green and Wal-Mart in the same sentence. Catalyst of suburban sprawl, king of the 5,000-mile supply chain, and employer of 1.8 million (many with gripes about schedules, pay, and benefits), Wal-Mart personifies the corporate consolidation that has hurt local farms, businesses, and sustainable small-town living. It’s the biggest private consumer of electricity in the United States, with a carbon footprint (when you include its supply chain) the size of Texas.

Which is why I was shocked to discover, when I took a good, long look at Wal-Mart’s plan, that it’s not only serious but seriously ambitious. Sure, it’s common knowledge that Wal-Mart is now the world’s biggest distributor of organic milk and purchaser of organic cotton. But over the past year, the company has been introducing other green commitments, vowing to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions 20 percent by 2012 (on par with Kyoto Protocol target=s), double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet within a decade, make stores 30 percent more energy efficient, and cut 25 percent of its solid waste in the next three years. The chain has declared that all of its wild-caught fish will be sustainably harvested, and some stores are already beginning to source produce locally. Scott is committing $500 million annually to make it all happen, and he’s urging the 60,000-plus suppliers that sell products in his stores to adopt similar goals.

The seed for Wal-Mart’s green dream was planted during a series of adventures that company chairman Rob Walton (son of founder Sam Walton) took with Conservation International CEO Peter Seligmann. They went diving in the Galápagos, hiking in Madagascar, and birding in Brazil’s wetlands. “Rob wants to understand nature as well as he understands business,” Seligmann says. When talk turned to the role of the marketplace in protecting the environment, Seligmann made the case that changing Wal-Mart’s corporate actions could have a dramatically more powerful impact than Walton’s personal quest to conserve wilderness.

If Wal-Mart were to go green, Seligmann told Walton (and, later, CEO Scott), it could attract new customers, boost employee morale, and burnish its public image (which has floundered in light of dubious labor and environmental practices), while saving big on energy bills. Blue-chip brands like GE and Starbucks, he pointed out, have already joined the sustainability bandwagon, not so much out of do-gooder spirit but because they’ve realized that smart environmental practices can fatten their bottom lines.

Walton and Scott acted quickly, running extensive cost-benefit analyses in 2004 and then developing a companywide eco-strategy. In Scott’s words, they’re out to “democratize sustainability” by making everything from clean power to pesticide-free foods—currently enjoyed mostly by affluent people who can pay premium prices—affordable for the masses. Wal-Mart, with its economies of scale, has the power to do that: The greater the demand for green products, the cheaper it is to produce them and the lower the retail price tags. Already, Wal-Mart has introduced a five-year program designed to help its suppliers shrink packaging and, in turn, cut energy and waste costs by $3.4 billion. “I’ve never seen any company embrace environmental strategy like Wal-Mart has,” Seligmann says.

Reactions from the environmental community have been predictably mixed. Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of eco-safe-household-products company Seventh Generation, has refused to sell at Wal-Mart. “It’s too early to conclude that they are fully committed to their plan,” he says. “If I were a supplier, I couldn’t play the objective, critical role needed to help ensure they live up to it.” Michael Pollan, whose bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma examines the American food chain, challenged the superstore’s decision to mainstream pesticide-free groceries in a June essay for The New York Times Magazine. Organic food, he wrote, “is about to go the way of sneakers and MP3 players, becoming yet another rootless commodity circulating in the global economy.”

But Greenpeace USA director John Passacantando—never shy about fingering corporate giants—calls Wal-Mart’s commitments “remarkable” and “hopeful, even if they’re just goals at this point.” “What’s hard to believe,” he told me, “is that America’s political leadership is lagging behind Wal-Mart on this issue.” Last summer, former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach signed on as a Wal-Mart consultant. And the Environmental Defense Fund has opened an office near Wal-Mart’s Arkansas headquarters to work pro bono on the company’s sustainability strategy.

While Wal-Mart deserves big props for helping to spearhead the corporate green movement, the retail Goliath needs to do plenty more before it gets a gold star. Things like matching its environmental goals with equally ambitious labor standards; making future and existing stores green and siting them in mixed-use downtown areas, to stop encouraging sprawl; requiring—not just urging—its suppliers to meet green standards; and sourcing regional food and merchandise at all its stores, to keep local farms and businesses alive.

Environmental advocates have work to do, too. They need to accept that mass-market solutions will inevitably involve trade-offs. They need to continue building stronger partnerships with corporate America, which today has more power and inclination to solve the climate crisis than Washington does. They need everyone—Republicans and Democrats, communities of all colors and income brackets, corporations and consumers—on board to reverse the potentially catastrophic ecological trends of our day. If sustainability is truly going to go mainstream, no person, party, product, or polluter can be left behind.