Wal-Mart has long been synonymous with rock-bottom prices. Today, the retail giant says it also wants to be synonymous with the green movement.
In 2006, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced plans for a bold sustainability initiative. Among other things, the initiative calls for Wal-Mart to cut energy use in its 7,000 stores around the world by 30 percent and to cut greenhouse-gas emissions at existing stores by 20 percent in seven years.
Wal-Mart has also pledged to reduce solid waste produced by its U.S. stores by 25 percent in the next three years and to make its trucking fleet more efficient.
The goals are lofty. And, say environmentalists, they should be, given Wal-Mart's spotty environmental track record.
For years, Wal-Mart has been a target of environmentalists, who argue that the company's rapid expansion in the last quarter century has destroyed countless trees and contributed mightily to the nation's considerable sprawl problems.
Wal-Mart, argue environmentalists, who have teamed with unions in recent years to block the company's recent bids to expand further into California markets, has hardly been the poster child for the green movement.
Consider these facts: Wal-Mart, with about 4,000 stores in the United States alone, is the nation's top electricity consumer. And, with about 300 trucks coming and going to each of its 118 U.S. distribution centers every day, it has the nation's second-largest fleet of private trucks.
Wal-Mart admits that it has its work cut out for it to convince naysayers that it means business about going green.
"We are at the beginning of what we see as a very long journey," said Andy Ruben, who is heading up the implementation of Wal-Mart's sustainability initiative.
Ruben says Wal-Marts throughout the nation are slowly but surely being outfitted to be more efficient. Among the changes taking place: Skylights are being installed to offset the need for artificial lighting; stores are also starting to use cash register receipts that print on both sides of the paper, thus reducing the need for so much paper; and green toilets are being installed in stores.
The freezer cases in Wal-Mart Supercenters also are being upgraded with energy-minded motion detectors, so that lights in the cases only go on when customers approach. The freezer upgrades will save stores an estimated 4 percent in energy consumption a year.
Wal-Mart is also working with its suppliers to change the way they package products that are shipped to, and sold in, Wal-Marts. Suppliers ranging from detergent to car seat manufacturers are heeding Wal-Mart's call to be more efficient, and are changing the way they package and ship their products. In some cases, the suppliers are reducing the amount of package and plastic they use by up to 50 percent.
That, says Andrew Shapiro, founder and CEO of Green Order, could make an enormous impact — not only for Wal-Mart, but for the entire green movement.
"Everyone wants to do business with Wal-Mart," said Shapiro.
If suppliers change the way they package goods for Wal-Mart, Shapiro points out, chances are they will change the way they package their goods for all stores, including Wal-Mart's competitors.
That's the kind of change, Shapiro says, government agencies have been trying to implement for years.
"Wal-Mart is not only saying we're going to do good ourselves, but we're going to require the people that sell through our stores change how they do business," said Shapiro. "That could have a tremendous impact on our economy and on our environment, all to the good."
Next up, says Ruben, is a bigger push to offer customers the latest in green products. Since taking on the sustainability initiative, Wal-Mart has become the world's biggest purchaser of organic cotton. Organic clothing is now prominently displayed at Wal-Marts throughout the nation. The retail giant has additionally increased its organic food offerings.
And then there are the light bulbs. Wal-Mart is determined, says Ruben, to show consumers how much money they can save — and how, in turn, they can help to save the environment — by investing in energy-efficient light bulbs.
After a light-bulb summit organized by Wal-Mart in the fall that was aimed at figuring out how to best implement the use of more efficient lighting, the company has committed itself to carrying a large variety of the new energy-efficient bulbs. The bulbs are situated next to handsome displays that help consumers calculate the money they can save simply by changing the bulbs in their homes.
Wal-Mart still has a long way to go to convince critics that its interest in the environment is not just a passing fancy.
Many bemoan the fact that, even after the initiative was announced, many of its stores still operate stores 24 hours a day — which does not seem consistent with a business serious about cutting back on energy consumption.
But, says Shapiro, no business is perfect. And if Wal-Mart, a chain that serves 208 million Americans in a year, can start to make some significant changes in the way it does business, the impact could be far-reaching.
"The fact that a huge company with huge supply chain connections like Wal-Mart is getting into this could really have the impact of democratizing the environmental movement from a consumer standpoint," Shapiro said. "It's the kind of thing that can make the green movement accessible to every person in the nation."