Big Changes at the Big Box

By Richard Bradley

Photovoltaic panels provide energy for Wal-Mart’s experimental store in Aurora, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

With its massive stores and incessant promotion of throwaway consumer goods, Wal-Mart has long been anathema to the environmental community. But recently the retailer has taken a high-profile plunge into greenery, designing less-wasteful stores and pledging to increase the fuel efficiency of its vehicles by 25 percent. It has also become the world’s largest seller of organic milk and buyer of organic cotton.

Should environmentalists take a fresh look at Wal-Mart? To find out, Plenty talked with Tyler Elm, a conservation biologist who became a key orchestrator of Wal-Mart’s green makeover.

How did an environmentalist start working for Wal-Mart?
I have an undergraduate degree in earth and biological sciences and a Master’s in resource and environmental management. I worked as a conservation biologist for five years in the forest of British Columbia. Then I got my MBA and started trying to bring the business side and the environmental side together.

What is your job?
As senior director of corporate strategy and sustainability, I have three tasks. One is to develop a business strategy of sustainability. The second is to develop mechanisms to integrate sustainability into the business. The last is to get the business to start seeing sustainability as a way to help drive profit.

Can you translate that?
In our company’s early years, the business model that worked was for Wal-Mart to serve the underserved in small communities. In the ’90s, the goal was to exploit the business model—everyday low prices, being an agent for the customer, the concept of super-centers, self-distribution. We grew tremendously. But that emphasis often resulted in a disconnect in how we were perceived.

So where does sustainability fit in?
We see a lot of opportunity here—it’s profitability and the opportunity to do good.

What changes will Wal-Mart customers see?
They might see buildings constructed in a different way. Years ago, we had a vinyl-based floor that was waxed. We now have high-gloss, polished concrete floors. The business benefit of the newer floors is that they’re low-maintenance. The environmental benefit is that you don’t have the vinyl or the chemicals for maintenance.

That’s pretty subtle. What else?
Most of our stores have daylight harvesting. If you look up, you’ll see skylights. That means that the lights in the store actually dim in accordance with the daylight outside, which both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is good for the business.

Wal-Mart is making a huge push into organics.
There’s a lot happening there. We’re expanding a locally-grown, locally-sold program. Is it good to have an organic tomato in Arkansas that’s grown in California and flown across the country? What’s the greenhouse gas imprint of that tomato versus something that’s sold and grown in Arkansas?

Here’s another example: peaches. Historically, they were grown in California and shipped all over the country, and the average distance from California to the East Coast was 2,800 miles. When you think that trucks were getting six miles to the gallon…

We now have nine growing regions, and the average distance from farm to store is 300 miles. We’re saving over 7,000 barrels of diesel fuel a year on peaches alone.

Are you responding to demand for organics or creating it?
Customers demand a fresh, quality product. And when it’s grown locally, people want to support that—especially if it doesn’t cost them more.

For a discounter like Wal-Mart, the high price of organics must be challenging.
Sustainability has traditionally been a white, elitist issue. We’re trying to integrate it with the low-cost business model. You shouldn’t have to live in New York or San Francisco to buy products that are healthful and good for the planet.

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Issue 25

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