"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."