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Wal-Mart goes ‘green’

Times Staff Writer

Wind turbines, rows of tall windows, a 200-foot-long dimpled-metal wall and shiny rooftop solar panels are just hints of what’s to come.

Here, next to a busy freeway in suburban Denver, is tomorrow’s Wal-Mart today. And it’s getting a lot of attention.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 17, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 17, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Wal-Mart “green” store: An article in Monday’s Business section about Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s experimental environmentally friendly store in Aurora, Colo., identified the president of environmental group Ceres as Mindy Lubin. Her name is Mindy Lubber.

For the last year, this experimental Wal-Mart Supercenter has been testing ways to be more environmentally sensitive in everything it does.

What works here won’t stay in Aurora. The world’s largest retailer wants ideas it can use in all of its more than 6,600 stores around the globe.

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“The goal has never been to build demonstration stores,” said Andy Ruben, who heads the company’s environmental efforts. “The experimental stores are successful when the learnings get applied to all stores.”

And the changes are likely to spread beyond Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. “It’s transformational,” said Charles Lockwood, an environmental real estate consultant in Los Angeles, whose article “Building the Green Way” appeared in June’s Harvard Business Review. “By their size, they’re forcing manufacturers to come up with more earth-friendly, energy-efficient products, which then become the industry norm.”

Wal-Mart is releasing a progress report today on its Colorado experiment in advance of this week’s international conference here on “green” building. One of the meeting’s highlights: a tour of the Aurora store.

Despite the company’s efforts, not every harried customer is aware of what Wal-Mart is doing.

“I know about the wind air thing out there because you can see it when you drive in, but not anything else,” said Lori Eastwood, a 48-year-old mother who drives 45 minutes once a month to shop at the Aurora store.

But if Wal-Mart has its way, that will change too.

As the company’s environmentally conscious changes roll out to its other stores, Wal-Mart figures it has 130 million opportunities every week -- each time a shopper walks through its doors -- to encourage people to make money-saving, earth-friendly choices in their own homes and lives.

What’s more, the findings from Colorado and a predecessor experimental store in McKinney, Texas, offer strategies for burnishing Wal-Mart’s image and winning over skeptics in places such as Los Angeles.

“It cuts operating expense and it can be a spectacular success with shoppers,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of retail consulting firm Strategic Resources Inc. “This can be the beachhead they use to rebuild consumer, community and political confidence.”

Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts, unlike some of its other initiatives, also have won the company something more elusive: approval from critics and others not predisposed to Wal-Mart fandom.

A recent New York gala dinner hosted by movie producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein honored Wal-Mart Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr. for “his commitment to environmental sustainability.” Co-hosts included talk-show star Charlie Rose, NBC Universal CEO Bob Wright, MTV creator Robert Pittman and investment banker Steven Rattner.

The company’s folksy image has taken a beating over the last 18 months, with critics lambasting Wal-Mart for its wage and benefit policies.

At the same time, the retailer’s once-mighty sales machine has faltered; the company last month posted nearly flat sales, its worst showing in six years.

Wal-Mart, which last year had sales of $312 billion, has said it will grow its way out of the slump in part by attracting more-affluent shoppers and expanding to in new areas including Chicago and cities along the East and West coasts.

By turning to conservationism, which many urban and wealthier shoppers find attractive, Wal-Mart may have found a way to kill several birds with one environmentally friendly stone.

But Wal-Mart says that’s not why it’s going green. Above all, the retailer says, its earth-friendly initiatives will save the company and its customers money, which goes to the heart of the Wal-Mart business model.

Just inside the Aurora store’s entryways, giant walls herald “The Aurora Experiment.” Pamphlets offer maps and descriptions of the projects and lists of the renewable materials used to make flooring, fixtures, counters and benches.

A TV monitor offers real-time displays of energy used and saved in different tests throughout the store.

On a cloudy Thursday morning last week, on the store’s first anniversary, solar panels were generating 16.7 kilowatts of power in the middle of the day. That’s roughly 10% of their capacity and enough to power four or five houses.

Not all the experiments are ready for export to other stores. Wind turbines have short-circuited. Wal-Mart is still monitoring the use of Using recycled cooking and motor oil in heating. And the wild-looking field of native prairie plantings, which require little water, is not an aesthetic all cities would appreciate.

But as the nation’s largest private purchaser of electricity, with an annual power bill of $1 billion, Wal-Mart says the successful experiments make the duds worthwhile.

In one test, Wal-Mart took items typically displayed in open cold cases -- such as lunch meats, cheeses, biscuit dough and eggs -- and put them in enclosed, freezer-like units, cutting that area’s energy bill 70%.

“Just like closing the door on the refrigerator at your house,” said Charles Zimmerman, Wal-Mart’s vice president of prototypes and new formats.

That experiment was worth exporting, Wal-Mart said. The enclosed refrigerators next will appear in six new “high-efficiency” stores that the company said would be a bridge between the lab stores and the chain’s future prototype.

Highly efficient lights for refrigerators and freezers did even better. The light-emitting-diode fixtures use 50% less energy than the traditional fluorescent lights, can be turned on and off and last four times as long as the current bulbs, about as long as the refrigerator cases themselves.

And just like at your house, all new Wal-Mart stores will have freezer lights that shut off. That test came from engineers taking a large white motion detector intended for security lights and jury-rigging it onto a freezer unit in Aurora.

By dimming the lights when no customers were around, those freezers used only 37% as much energy as the ones that always had their lights on. So the company asked General Electric Co., which is making the retailer’s LED fixtures, to make enough lights and sensors for 500 stores.

Even some of Wal-Mart’s most committed critics find it hard to criticize the company’s environmental efforts and even harder to find fault with the green stores.

“We’re encouraged by Wal-Mart’s new environmental initiatives because they could, if implemented, change the way American businesses approach environmental sustainability,” said Nu Wexler, of the union-backed Wal-Mart Watch.

The first change is likely to come in the retail sector. Wal-Mart has given presentations and tours of its experiments to competitors such as Target Corp., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Food Lion in hopes of winning converts and driving prices down on the new technology, Zimmerman said.

Last fall Wal-Mart’s Scott gave a speech to employees in which he said the company would spend $500 million annually to reach specific environmental goals.

They included increasing the efficiency of Wal-Mart’s 7,000 trucks by 25% in the following three years and doubling it in 10; cutting greenhouse gas emissions at stores and distribution centers by 20% in seven years, cutting solid waste from domestic stores by 25% in the ensuing three years and rewarding suppliers that joined the cause.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, declined to work with Wal-Mart on environmental matters because the company wouldn’t agree also to talk about labor, healthcare and other issues.

Nonetheless, Pope said that after examining Wal-Mart’s initiatives, he was convinced the company was making a sincere and significant commitment, even if he was skeptical that some goals could be reached.

“None of this is ‘greenstanding,’ ” said Pope, who also serves on Wal-Mart Watch’s board. “Their metrics are impressive; they’re not modest.

“They deserve the chance to show that their business model is compatible with high standards, not just low prices.”

Friends of the Earth, another environmental group that isn’t working with Wal-Mart, is more circumspect.

“There is a broader picture that needs to be considered,” said the group’s international director, David Waskow.

Part of the problem is that Wal-Mart donates money to politicians whom activists call anti-environment, the group said. It also questions whether the company is taking enough responsibility for its polluting suppliers.

But the president of the environmental group Ceres, which works with companies to improve their environmental practices, said she had to give credit where credit was due.

“We can’t say this one doesn’t deserve credit because they don’t come with the right spirit,” said Mindy Lubin, a regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration.

“That may be the case, it may not,” she added. “But you can’t deny real change and progress and goals, and how much can be accomplished by a company the size of Wal-Mart.”

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abigail.goldman@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Environmental elements

Here are some of the “green” experiments Wal-Mart tested at its Colorado and Texas stores.

Energy efficiency

* Light-emitting diodes used in exterior signs and in the store

* Evaporative cooling installed in the Colorado store uses water sprayed into the air stream to cool the air as it evaporates.

* A portion of the heating for the stores uses recovered cooking and motor oil. Heat recovered from the refrigeration racks also is used.

* New refrigeration display cases have doors that reduce air infiltration, reducing electricity demand.

Solar power

* Solar has not met expectations.

Wind power

* Wind turbines also have performed below expectations.

Water conservation

* Since April, the Texas store has used 85% less water for irrigation thanks to the use of native, drought-tolerant plants in landscaping and drip irrigation.

* Waterless urinals were installed in the men’s restrooms. The urinals were designed to save one to three gallons of water per use.

* Pervious pavement and/or concrete were used at both stores to assist with draining water from the parking lots. This pavement allows water to percolate through the pavement system and into the groundwater system.

Waste

* Spoiled items from the produce, deli, meat and dairy departments are sent out for composting. The compost is then sold at Wal-Mart’s stores.

Building materials

* Recycled pavement was used, including some from the demolition of Stapleton International Airport.

* Ternary concrete was used. This material mixes traditional concrete with industrial byproducts including fly ash (results from burning coal for electricity) and slag (a byproduct of steel manufacturing).

* Recycled rubber sidewalks are warping and fading in the sun.

* Countertops were made with recycled glass and concrete. Bamboo was made into woodwork and flooring. While the flooring is holding up well, the cabinets and fixtures are not.

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Source: Wal-Mart Stores

Los Angeles Times


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