Saturday, August 19, 2006


Your Friendly Neighbourhood Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart sure knows how to win friends and influence people. The company often comes under fire for its "questionable" labour practices - read low wages, little or no benefits, sexist policies and decidedly anti-union stance.

Add another great piece to the company's history. Andrew Young, the American civil rights leader who was hired by Wal- Mart Stores to improve its public image, has resigned from that post after telling an African-American newspaper that Jewish, Arab and Korean shop owners had "ripped off" urban communities for years, "selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables."

In the interview, published Thursday in The Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly, Young said Wal-Mart should displace mom-and-pop stores in urban neighbourhoods.

"You see those are the people who have been overcharging us," he said of the owners of the small stores, "and they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they've ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now its Arabs."

As David Roberts at Grist Magazine writes, Wal-Mart is continually re-branding itself:

In close consultation with Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute, Scott pledged to double the efficiency of Wal-Mart's enormous truck fleet by 2015 and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from its existing stores and warehouses by 20 percent over the same stretch. By 2008, Wal-Mart will have a store design that uses 30 percent less energy and produces 30 percent fewer GHG emissions, developed out of the experimental green stores in McKinney, Texas, and Aurora, Colorado. It will reduce solid waste from its stores and clubs by 25 percent in three years.

The company also plans to reduce overall packaging, move heavily into organic products (textiles and food), and even -- if you believe the chatter -- buy more local food.

Wal-Mart's notorious monopoly powers force suppliers to bend to its will or suffer. Normally this is a lamentable state of affairs, but if such power is wielded on behalf of the environment, the ramifications could be astounding. By Scott's own reckoning, 90 percent of Wal-Mart's environmental impact will come through influence on its supply chain.

For example, the company is ordering wild-caught seafood from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. It's developing a sustainable certification system for gold. In areas where Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer -- and those are legion -- its demands could transform whole industries.

Influence will also pass forward into the enormous customer base. More than other greening companies like GE and Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart has direct, personal relationships with millions and millions of ordinary Americans of every class and color. It can educate them about eco-friendly products and behaviours; indeed, in its ubiquity it cannot help but educate them. The company is also a cultural icon, the very emblem of Middle America. By embracing green thinking, Wal-Mart could drain it of its poisonous ideological connotations and enshrine it instead as common sense. Ecology could be removed from the culture wars.

And finally, influence will move out laterally, as a signal to other businesses that green is smart. Environmentalists have been saying for years that business eco-makeover need not be an act of altruism. Reducing waste -- wasted energy, wasted packaging, and wasted time -- is the very essence of good management. Despite Scott's moral gloss, Wal-Mart would not be undertaking these reforms if they weren't going to pay off in the bottom line.

One should also pay attention to Wal-Mart's move into organic food. The very reason that organic is popular is that it isn’t mass produced and provides the customer with piece of mind that production means are, at least humane, but also ethical.

There is a great Wal-Mart blog here.

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