Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The greening of Wal-Mart

A good deal of ecology and other “systems sciences” is devoted to understanding if systems (ecosystems, political systems) are controlled from the top down (the top predator, the government) or from the bottom up (the ants, the people, not to sound too Marxist here). Often, it is a bit of both. The government can never be too far ahead of the people, and vice versa.

Which brings me to the “greening” of Wal-Mart, that enemy of small businesses, labour activists, urban planners, environmentalists, and people who simply prefer walking or cycling to the store (it’s exhausting just riding across a Wal-Mart parking lot).

After a couple years of bad press and opinionated documentaries, the retail giant has undertaken a huge sustainability initiative. Before you roll your eyes, think about the numbers. It is the largest retailer in the world and the largest food distributor in the US. A decision by the Wal-Mart executives about not just what the stores sell, but how the company operates, could really transform the energy, food and transportation industries.

An article in the Washington Post provides some of the numbers:

“Wal-Mart has reduced its fuel use 8 percent by preventing its trucks from idling, saving $25 million over the past year while cutting 100,000 metric tons of emissions. It recently began buying organic cotton, and all 3,700 of its U.S. stores are using energy-efficient light bulbs. Wal-Mart is so big that a slight reduction in the packaging of one of its toy lines saved the company $2.4 million last year by cutting trucking costs, while saving 1,000 barrels of oil and 3,800 trees.”

I recommend reading the press release about the experimental superstore recently opened in McKinney, Texas (any Texans out there? I’d love to get a first hand account). The store features a wind turbine, solar panels, an urban forest, a wildflower meadow, pervious pavement (to allow runoff to infiltrate to the soil), water conservation initiatives, etc:

“To supplement the energy this store needs to operate, Wal-Mart has installed a 50-kilowatt wind turbine. The energy it produces will reduce the electricity consumption of this Supercenter by approximately 5 percent–enough energy to power 10 average size homes.”

Ok, it’s just one small turbine, but it makes you think. First, Wal-Mart stores themselves are bloody huge, and reducing their energy use is significant. Second, experiments like this could set an important precedent, for other retailers and for the market as a whole.

Let's say the chain goes full bore in the use and sale of use of energy efficient light bulbs. More will be manufactured, the price will drop, other retailers will also sell them, and in a few years, presto, the curly fry bulbs are the norm.

Personally, I don't like much of what Wal-mart does or represents, the pressure on smaller retailers, the drawing business away from downtown, the support of a car-based culture, the labour practices, etc. There is, however, no denying the huge potential for change when one company, like Wal-Mart, has such a disproportionate influence on our way of life.

Does that mean the system is top-down? The irony is that opposite may be true in this case. The primary reason Wal-Mart embarked on a "sustainability initiative" is that grassroots activism about the company's labour practices and the societal impact of the stores led to lots of bad press and bad financial projections for the company. Those at the top do need to change, no doubt, but perhaps the initiative can come from the people.


Gatsby said...

It's just like McDonalds. When public pressure caused it to drop styrofoam, it did it. The trick is, you have to use public pressure to get the big guys to go along with you, rather than alienate them I think. It's kind of a strange balance.
Now, if someone can get walmart to support local downtown bike-friendly businesses, that would be something.

Simon Donner said...

The Wal-Mart shift also reflects the maturation (the cynical may say selling out?) of environmental organizations. Rather than just rail against companies like Wal-mart big business, they are working with them to enforce change.

tim said...

Now that Al Gore works for them Wal Mart is good. Good Wal Mart. Excellent business strategy.

Simon Donner said...

Tim, do you think Wal-Mart is doing this just to change public opinion and increases sales? How clever, I never even thought of that.

Of course they are. That's not the point. Regardless of motive, if the company goes through will all this, it could have positive benefits. And it is happening in some part because of a popular revolt.