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Suggestion box for going green opens at Wal-Mart

Times Staff Writer

In the latest step in its green offensive, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is launching a Web-based tool to help identify new ways to make its operations more environmentally friendly.

Cleantech Group, a small Michigan company that links inventors of sustainable technologies with investors, will solicit ideas for Wal-Mart to address such diverse problems as the reuse of vegetable fats from the retail giant’s deli fryer and more efficient batteries for the company’s thousands of forklifts.

Cleantech will use its network of scientists and industry experts to assess ideas and business plans submitted to its website, and pass along the most promising to Wal-Mart within about six weeks.

The website, which begins to accept proposals today, will be secure to protect trade secrets.

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Wal-Mart said it hoped to implement the most practical ideas as widely as possible within two years, especially if they can improve the company’s bottom line.

“The number of [sustainable technology] innovators and well-funded ideas is growing so rapidly that we can’t keep up with it,” said Rand Waddoups, Wal-Mart’s sustainability director. “We’re looking for something that’s got potential, even if it’s not here today.”

The payoff for successful ideas could be enormous -- a fat contract with the world’s largest retailer.

The website emerged out of a contract between Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart and Cleantech Group announced last fall.

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Cleantech, a private company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has signed up 1,300 large-scale investors in a network of businesspeople and academics. It has facilitated $1.1 billion in investments since its founding in 2002, said Paula Rhoades, who manages the Wal-Mart project for Cleantech.

In the last two years Wal-Mart has won praise even from some former critics for initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint, cut packaging waste and sell more environmentally friendly products.

Environmental Defense, a New York-based environmental advocate, has advised the company for nearly three years. The nonprofit group accepts no funding from Wal-Mart, but has taken funds for unrelated work from the company’s charitable foundation.

“They are taking the suggestion box to a whole new level,” Elizabeth V. Sturcken, who manages the environmental group’s corporation partnerships program. “At the heart, they are a very innovative company.”

Wal-Mart said it had added solar panels to some of its stores, upgraded long-haul trucks for better fuel efficiency and sold 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs.

These changes are just the beginning, Waddoups said. “We want to be able to implement this as quickly as possible because we’ve set some pretty lofty goals, and those savings translate into savings for our customers.”

He said the company hoped that new efficiencies also would benefit communities in which Wal-Mart operates -- such as a system for donating bread and other food that is a day or two away from expiration, but still edible, to homeless shelters.

Sturcken praised Wal-Mart for its vision but added that the company needed to provide verifiable data to back up its claims, calling that transparency “a lingering challenge.”

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charles.piller@latimes.com


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