Store manager Brent Allen knew his new Wal-Mart in Texas was special when a woman from Oregon sought him out and gave him a great big hug.
``I am just so impressed that you as a company would take the kind of time that you are taking and the money it must have cost to build this store to test these things,'' she said to Allen, who manages the green supercenter that opened in McKinney, Texas, in July.
The woman and her husband were struck by the sight of the store's wind turbine as they drove near the intersection of Interstate 75 and U.S. Highway 380. Curious, they doubled back in their motor home to investigate.
Allen, a 14-year Wal-Mart employee, would eventually spend 30 minutes explaining not only how the wind turbine generates 5 percent of the store's energy but also the 25 other environmental experiments housed inside and outside the store.
``[The store] has really captured the attention of people, in general,'' he said.
Fans and foes of the country's largest employer are easy to find. The $298 billion retailer is even the subject of two films this fall that separately build up and tear down the company. But some of Wal-Mart's biggest detractors - environmental groups - are grudgingly singing the praises of Wal-Mart of late. While these praises may not be a full-fledged hug, they are akin to an ``atta-boy'' slug to the shoulder of the Bentonville, Ark.-based company.
The editorial staff of Waste News, a sister publication to Plastics News, has taken note as well. From January through November, Wal-Mart unveiled several broad-ranging environmental initiatives that could have lasting impact on the company, its suppliers and the retail sector. From an ever-expanding plastic recycling project to the pledge of Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott to reduce waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions, the company thrust itself into a green hot spotlight this year.
So for its 2005 performance and for its future commitments, Wal-Mart has earned the first Waste News Environmental Award. The award recognizes a company that has made significant environmental progress in the way it operates its business.
So what's going on at Wal-Mart? Or more to the point, why has the mega-retailer made this very public push into environmental management? The simple answer seems to be that it makes good business sense.
``I believe, in fact, that being a good steward of the environment and in our communities, and being an efficient and profitable business, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are one and the same,'' Scott said in an October speech that outlined the company's environmental vision. The CEO, in the same speech, tackled other high-profile issues like the federal minimum wage of $5.15, calling the hourly rate ``out of date with the times.''
Environmentally, Scott simplified Wal-Mart's long-range plans, saying the company wants to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy, create zero waste and sell products that sustain resources and the environment.
In the short term, Wal-Mart will push multiple policies, including ones that decrease waste generation by 25 percent and increase fuel efficiency by 25 percent in its fleet of 7,100 tractors and 44,500 trailers.
When Andy Ruben, vice president of corporate strategy and sustainability, talks about Wal-Mart's plans, he talks about efficiency. Redesigning a product and the box it is shipped in, for example, not only eliminates waste and saves natural resources, it allows for more items to be shipped and can improve aerodynamics and fuel efficiency for the vehicle doing the shipping.
Suppliers on board
This type of efficiency, though, requires a commitment from the company's 60,000 suppliers. Ruben indicates that those folks are on board.
``As we have made those changes, a number of suppliers, who in many cases are leading the way, are starting to share more ideas with us,'' he said.
Stephen Hoch, a retail and marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, downplays Wal-Mart's financial investment in environment management.
``This really does not cost Wal-Mart very much at all,'' he said. ``So make the one-time change-over cost and come up with a better policy that sort of helps everybody in the long run. They are so humongous that anything they do is going to have some sort of important economic impact.''
Hoch also is not too concerned with Wal-Mart's motivation for its new environmental stance.
``I think it does set a precedent for others in the [retail] industry. We see that everything that Wal-Mart does becomes, in some sense, standard operating procedure for others, so why shouldn't this be the case too? So let's applaud them and not worry about why they're doing it,'' Hoch said.
Green welcome mat
The two green supercenters, in McKinney, Texas, and Aurora, Colo., are Wal-Mart's most visible environmental investment to date.
Inside these 206,000-square-foot structures, maps and special floor tiles direct customers to energy-efficient food coolers and waterless urinals. Less visible are items like the oil recycling project that transfers cooking byproducts from the deli and oil from the automotive center to the store's boiler. Other highlights include one-time projects like the recycling of 518 tons of concrete from a Denver airport that was used as the foundation in the Aurora store.
Don Moseley, Wal-Mart's director of experimental stores, won't reveal how much more it cost to construct the two stores. He contends the extra costs are not relevant.
``They have a broad variety of experiments. Some of them are at a scale to facilitate the whole store. Others are at a scale sufficient to learn about a specific component or vendor,'' he said.
The costs increased even more because Wal-Mart built in what Moseley called an exit strategy for its experiments. For example, the company placed plumbing behind the walls of its waterless urinals in case the experiment does not prove worthwhile.
Regardless of the cost, preliminary data shows the green supercenter in McKinney is between 6 and 10 percent more energy-efficient than another Wal-Mart in town that opened almost two years ago, Moseley said.
Wal-Mart's green stores put it ahead of the curve. There does seem to be a small but growing trend of retailers building green.
The U.S. Green Building Council, which was not involved in the Wal-Mart supercenters, has given some level of certification to nine retailers in 2004 and 2005. Eight other companies, including Target, the Gap and Disney, have expressed interest in gaining certification from the council, a spokeswoman said.
Look for more environmental progress from Wal-Mart next year.
The company plans to expand its innovative plastics recycling program. Through October, its pilot project recycled 3.5 million pounds, or 1,750 tons, of plastics at 10 percent of its stores. The program bales bags, film and shrink-wrap between layers of cardboard.
Rocky Mountain Recycling and Wal-Mart developed the ``plastic sandwich bale'' system after Wal-Mart asked for assistance finding end uses for recovered plastics. The pilot program will expand to Wal-Mart stores coast to coast in 2006, said Jeff Ashby, sales and marketing manager at Rocky Mountain Recycling.
Whether the subject is recycling plastics or investing in technologies to reduce greenhouse gases, Wal-Mart leaders refer to 2005 as a beginning.
``I think we're just scratching the surface,'' said Ruben, the company's sustainability chief. ``And what happens is the more people that we work with and the more educated we become along this journey, the more opportunity that we see.''