Saving Planet Earth -- One Store at a Time

Imagine if companies like Wal-Mart, DuPont and Honda started acting to save the environment with the kind of vigor corporate America reserves for hawking hamburgers, razor blades and erectile dysfunction remedies.

While Washington debates how to tackle climate change, these companies are among a small but growing cadre that is taking action on its own. They're saying that the planet can't wait for the government to step up to the plate.

Their size alone could lead to significant change in an area where Congress and the president, to date, have mostly balked.

These corporations already have great brand recognition. Now if they use their scope and power to go "green," the hope is that there will be a significant reduction in global warming.

To be sure, there have been no huge outlays thus far to promote green to the public and enlist other companies, and there is a public relations component to these "greening" efforts.

But companies say they are in it for more than a good image. They want positive environmental change and positive effects to their bottom lines.

Josh Dorner, spokesman on energy and global warming for the Sierra Club, said two groups of companies were pushing for change: Those who are genuine and those who are doing so for more calculated reasons.

"Companies like Whole Foods are doing actually environmentally progressive things, like powering all of its operations with green power," Dorner said. "While we might have other issues with Wal-Mart, certainly they are doing a lot of positive things on the environment."

However, he noted, "lately you've seen these trade associations sort of tripping over themselves to come out" saying they're for green policies. Their motives, he said, are less than pure.

"I think there is certainly some calculation -- by some -- that if they can cut a deal now, they can get a lot better deal then they would get later," he said.

Dorner said that when big companies decided to take environmentally friendly actions, there were ripple effects across the nation.

"When Wal-Mart says [to its suppliers], 'Don't use excess packaging,' that pretty much means that packing is reduced on products across the board," he said, adding that such efforts were "both genuine and will make a difference."

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has undertaken several ecofriendly initiatives recently.

"Whether it is the world's rapidly growing population or the worsening problem of global warming, we see the need for sustainable business practices as increasingly urgent," Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott, Jr., said in a speech last month in London. "And perhaps more than anything else, we see sustainability as mainstream."

With 176 million weekly shoppers in 14 countries around the world, Wal-Mart can have a major impact, even if it involves a small change.

For instance, Wal-Mart announced a goal this fall of having its suppliers reduce the amount of packaging they used by 5 percent by 2013. The move saves money for Wal-Mart and its suppliers because they can buy less packing and save on fuel to transport the products. It is also good for the environment because there is less waste.

If a supplier changes its packaging to comply with Wal-Mart's demand, other retailers will also see the ripple effects of that change.

"One simple action can really multiply through our customer base, our associate base and supplier base," said Janelle Kearsley, director of strategy and sustainability for Wal-Mart.

But going green has expanded beyond the retail sector. Chairlifts at Vail, Heavenly and other Vail Resorts mountains are now powered by wind energy. The ski company, which nearly 6.2 million skiers visited last year, started purchasing 100-percent wind power offsets this season for all of its electric needs at the resorts.

From the lifts to stores and Vail-owned hotels, that's nearly 152,000 megawatt hours a year and equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road.

Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said that wind power cost more, but that it was the right thing for the environment.

"We have almost a special duty and a special opportunity to really be a leader in this effort," Katz said. "Not only is it protecting our product very directly but it's also really connecting with our guests and reminding them over and over about how beautiful the environment is [and] how important it is to take care of it."

The company is not part of any environmental political movement in Washington, Katz said, but hopes to instead lead by example.

"I'd rather walk the walk than spend my time talking the talk," he said. "We're going to do the right thing for the environment without getting into a broad political debate about it."

While many companies are making changes on their own, some are directly lobbying the federal government, typically through partnerships or trade groups.

Take the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a group of companies and environmental groups that have joined to call on the federal government "to achieve significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions."

The group, like many corporations, is pushing a cap-and-trade system where limits are set on greenhouse-gas emissions. Companies can exceed those caps by purchasing credits from more-efficient, less-polluting businesses.

The partnership includes Alcoa, DuPont, General Electric and Lehman Bros.

Katie Mandes, communications director for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, one of the partnership's members, said companies were joining for several reasons.

"Probably the biggest thing that brings these guys to the table is: They want a seat while policy is being shaped," Mandes said. "They don't want to wait until the policy is done and then have to adhere to it. Instead they'd rather be there and help and make sure their concerns and sector issues are considered."

A lot of the companies -- especially those dependent on coal -- are going to be making large, long-term capital investments and therefore have a huge interest in what the regulations will be. Then, Mandes said, there are just some who are worried about the future of Earth.

"There are a certain number of CEOs who feel like it's time to give something back, a sort of legacy approach," she said. "Many of these folks are grandparents and they're looking at the world they're going to leave behind."