Wal-Mart’s green hat
If you care about green, it’s hard not to view these as the worst of times, marked by looming climate, water and energy crises, vanishing fisheries, mile-a-minute deforestation — the list is numbingly endless. In response, we have a largely apathetic public, an environmental lobby rendered toothless by said apathy, a political left and center paralyzed by fear that protecting the planet might hurt the economy, and a political right that’s never been more virulently opposed to all things green as job-killing, business-bashing burdens and boondoggles.
But then there’s ... Wal-Mart.
Of all companies, the “bully of Bentonville” has ridden into the fray wearing the white — or rather, green — hat, asserting by example that all this paralysis and animosity over protecting the planet is sheer crazy talk.
Believe it or not, this reddest of red-state retailers — joined by a growing number of like-minded companies large and small — insists there is a business case for sustainability, a profit motive for investing in green. And it has the data to prove it: The company is pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars with more planet-friendly practices that lower carbon emissions, conserve energy, save forests and radically reduce landfill waste. Soon this sustainability payback will be in the billions. Greening the business, it turns out, is a comfort, not a curse, in a tough economy.
I’m no apologist for Wal-Mart. The giant retailer is still ripe for criticism on a number of fronts, from hiring and labor issues to its impact on local businesses and communities. But in this area of sustainability, Wal-Mart got it right. It’s not the first company to realize that going green can be good for business, but it is the largest and most powerful.
Wal-Mart, in short, is providing the perfect foil to the anti-green meme that has Washington in thrall. Yet no one is making the case.
This isn’t Al Gore saying green is good for the economy; it’s Wal-Mart, which puts the discussion in a very different place. Yet progressives so revile the retailer, and the idea of a greener Wal-Mart generates so much skepticism among environmentalist organizations and their donors, that they have failed to capitalize on this golden opportunity to push through a green agenda for America. They’d rather lose the battle, it seems, than say something positive about their traditional enemy, even though Wal-Mart is using its vast scale and power to do something other than bully suppliers, crush competitors, bust unions, outsource American industry and bury local businesses.
It’s time to rethink this position. Since 2005, Wal-Mart’s “evil empire” has lowered the carbon footprint of its stores by more than 10% and of its trucking fleet by several times that amount. Better fuel and energy efficiency, streamlined trucks, energy-saving lighting and refrigeration and better route planning have saved Wal-Mart hundreds of millions of dollars. The retailer also has shown its suppliers in the United States and China how to lower their carbon emissions and energy bills by 20% to 60%.
Reducing packaging, meanwhile, has saved hundreds of millions in shipping and materials costs and comparable numbers of trees, and an ongoing effort to shrink all product packages by 5% and make what’s left more recyclable will save the company an estimated $3.4 billion. (The most familiar example: A Wal-Mart demand to manufacturers to shrink laundry detergent bottles saved, over three years, 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic, 125 million pounds of cardboard and half a million gallons of diesel fuel because of the reduced shipping weight and bulk.)
A seemingly unrealistic goal of zero waste to landfills is suddenly looking attainable; the company cut its waste 81% in California, a pilot program now going nationwide. The trick to it was finding new uses for former trash: turning plastic waste into dog beds, food waste into compost sold in its stores, expired but still healthful foods into food bank donations. The waste Wal-Mart once paid to have hauled away is now earning the company more than $100 million a year.
Big manufacturers such as Unilever and General Mills, as well as sustainability pioneers that once criticized Wal-Mart — Patagonia and Seventh Generation — have partnered with the retailer on green efforts. Lately, whole industry groups, including leading apparel companies, electronics and dairy, have announced related initiatives to become greener and to go public with the information on how clean — and dirty — their products are.
The golden age of environmentalism is long over. The days when 20 million Americans showed up for Earth Day and pressured Congress into creating landmark bipartisan legislation to protect air, water and endangered species are unlikely to return any time soon. Back then the enemy of the environment was big business. Today, businesses provide one of the few encouraging trends on the environment, a way to turn the tables and show that opponents to investing in green are the ones hurting America.
Outsourced global companies like Wal-Mart can never be completely green or sustainable. But they can do better, and some of them are doing better. Their realization that profit and planet can and must live on the same side of the ledger sheet puts them way ahead of most politicians and voters.
For environmentalists, this business case for sustainability should be one of the most critical messages of our time. There’s a lot of talk about it among insiders and true believers at green business conferences, but it’s barely a whisper as far as Washington and the American public are concerned. It ought to be a drumbeat.
Edward Humes is the author, most recently, of “Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution.”
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