Sunday, March 23, 2008


There is a lot to be said about Wal-Mart and its practices, and there are those out there who devote a great deal of time to do just that. However, lately I have seen a brighter side to their company.

I first developed an appreciation for the widespread consequences, both good and bad, of Wal-Mart's decisions, when the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD battle was decided. How was the battle won by Blu-Ray? Wal-Mart announced they would only carry Blu-Ray products. Toshiba immediately announced they would halt production of HD-DVD products. But do such decisions have other outcomes?

Since 1998, the use of growth hormones in cattle in Canada has been banned. Not so in the US. So ever since the new natural/organic/local food craze gained popularity, the demand for non-hormone milk has likewise increased. Finally, the tipping point has arrived. Wal-Mart decided on Thursday that they would no longer carry milk that came from hormone treated cows. And since Wal-Mart is the biggest grocer in the US, that decision put the nail in the growth hormone coffin.

This is another in a long line of recent initiatives Wal-Mart has introduced to polish their corporate image, specifically with regards to environmentalism. Their distribution system is considered the largest trucking company in America, so their decision to improve the fuel efficiency on their trucks by 25% over three years will have a massive impact. They are also forcing suppliers to cut their packaging size significantly. Research contracted by Wal-Mart showed that by reducing packaging on just one of their toy lines would save 3 800 trees and a million barrels of oil. They have pushed to sell 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs annually. They even pulled together 250 of the biggest retail CEOs and warned them that companies that scored low on their new sustainability scorecard would be denied space on their shelves. They even dumped their 19-year slogan "Always Low Prices, Always" and introduced "Save Money Live Better".

But do any serious environmentalists buy any of this? An article in the March 15 Globe and Mail tells the story of Adam Werbach, the youngest ever president of the Sierra Club. (The article is now locked, but was written by Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope.) He was an uber-activist, one of the environmental movement's up and comers. What is he doing now? He works as a sustainability consultant for Wal-Mart. He helps guide their Personal Sustainability Project that sees the company attempt to have each employee make one simple change in their life that will improve sustainability. And since Wal-Mart is America's largest employer, that could go a long way to making sustainable living more commonplace.

Certainly there would be those who would brush all of this off as a way to gain more customers and increase their stock price. But if the world's largest corporation makes wide ranging decisions to appear more sustainable just to attract more customers, is that not testament to the power of the consumer to change corporate behavior? And since 49 of the top 100 economies in the world are now corporations and not countries, it could be argued that their decisions are equally if not more important than those of politicians.

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