Why Wal-Mart isn’t as Bad as You Think

Wal-Mart.  It makes many an environmentalist see red.  But like it or not, the retail giant, the biggest in the US, if not the world, and those like it, have an important role to play in the neutral living revolution.

Those inclined to live their lives in a more earth-friendly way often have the tendency to assume the entire population of Spaceship Earth has heard the news.  And they likely have – if not they may have been visiting another planet for the last few years.  But hearing the message and making the commitment to “do your part” are different things.

Consumer behavior is most often driven by the economy. When purchasing anything in tough economic times, consumers are obviously more likely to buy the least expensive items they can find. Most grocers and retailers, working hard to survive a tough economy as well, probably aren’t pricing or stocking items based on their environmental impacts.  As a result, being “green” in many stores requires a shopper with more green in his or her pocket, supporting the long-held assumption that shopping for the earth is a pastime for the affluent.

Enter Sam Walton’s much maligned yet often shopped-in chain of discount stores.  All criticisms aside, everybody knows one thing about Wal-Mart.  It’s a great place to get almost anything you can think of cheap.  As a result, large numbers of Americans find themselves in its aisles quite often.

Wal-Mart’s pledges to green its operations have met mixed reaction.  Some have denounced any of Wal-Mart’s efforts as green-wash.  Others have heaped kudos on the retail giant, some of which are deserved, some of which may not be.  But there is one thing Wal-Mart’s greener retail strategy does that few other corporations or organizations can – it brings environmentalism to the masses by making it affordable to care about the planet.  The promotion of compact fluorescent light bulbs in its stores alone has spread the benefits of energy efficiency to a wider audience.  Wal-Mart offers apparel, bedding, and home linens made from sustainable fabrics, and Forest Sustainability Council certified furniture, and now carries only concentrated liquid detergents in order to minimize packaging waste.

Additionally, Wal-Mart’s corporate side is using its retail weight to encourage its product suppliers to significantly cut product packaging, and continually re-evaluates business practices to find more ways to cut waste, recycle and reuse.  Adam Werbach, who gained famed in the environmental community years ago as the youngest ever president of the Sierra Club, was once a fierce Wal-Mart opponent.  The company changed his mind, and hired him on as a consultant for its green efforts – Werbach has become a force behind the company’s green efforts, much to the chagrin of many of his old-school fellow activists and one-time friends. (Check out a great story on Werbach and Wal-Mart at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/118/working-with-the-enemy.html) 

Wal-Mart is far from perfect – it’s probably impossible for a retailer its size to offer the prices it does and receive all A’s on its corporate responsibility report card. And its job on the environment is far from finished.  Among issues still to be addressed fully are concerns related to new store siting, development, and construction.  But it deserves the respect of the green community for making clear strides toward a notable goal – bringing the spirit of environmental responsibility to millions of American consumers.  Love it or hate it, shop there or snub it, Wal-Mart may well be remembered for providing millions of Americans with an education in greener living.

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