Can Wal-Mart really go green?

  • Sarah Jackson
  • Wednesday, September 26, 2007 11:43am
  • Life

I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. Recently, however, I started thinking about the corporate giant when I came across this story about Wal-Mart creating its own “Great Value” brand of CFL light bulbs as part of its “Change a Light. Change a World.” campaign to sell 100 million bulbs in a year.

I must admit, pushing CFLs is definitely a worthy, laudable and topical “An Inconvenient Truth” kind of goal. I haven’t heard whether the company has achieved its objective — set a year ago this month — but, surely, a press release and big announcement must be coming, I hope, along with a new in-store recycling program for the mercury-laden energy savers. It’s the least the biggest private user of electricity in the United States could do, right?

While I was poking around for details, I also stumbled upon the numerous legitimate green programs Wal-Mart has established in recent years, including a pledge to reduce packaging, a clean air initiative, a push toward renewable energy sources, an Acres for America program and still others. It’s impressive. When such a huge company makes even small changes, it’s going to make an impact.

Still, like many people, I’m skeptical. Can such a huge business model with more than 6,600 stores truly be sustainable or is it simply less destructive? Can selling some of the cheapest goods in the world really be green? Can Wal-Mart, facing serious problems with how it treats its employees, have its environmentally friendly cake and eat it too?

Watching Wal-Mart’s really creepy promotional video called, simply, “Sustainability,” didn’t exactly convince me. It opens with a slideshow view of American history, a sort of “Better Living Through Chemistry” look back on the industrialization of the world, complete with images of Martin Luther King Jr., the Dali Lama and a child being vaccinated, presumably, against polio. Quickly the video segues into “interviews” with company reps and CEO Lee Scott — filmed in front of black screens with an unending soundtrack of undulating violins in the background — talking about the company’s latest goals in going green.

Apparently, for Wal-Mart, sustainability’s profitability and marketability became exceedingly clear with record-breaking sales of a single Sam’s Club product — an organic cotton yoga outfit that sold out incredibly fast, “190,000 units” in 10 weeks. Since then Wal-Mart, according to its Web site, has expanded its organic cotton offerings and has become the largest single purchaser of 100 percent organic cotton in the world.

“The revolution has already begun,” says one company representative. “It’s called sustainability.”

CEO Scott said in an August 2006 Fortune magazine story: “To me, there can’t be anything good about putting all these chemicals in the air. There can’t be anything good about the smog you see in cities. There can’t be anything good about putting chemicals in these rivers in Third World countries so that somebody can buy an item for less money in a developed country. Those things are just inherently wrong, whether you are an environmentalist or not.”


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