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What Would Make You Shop at Wal-Mart Again?

I’m one of those people who try my best not to shop at Wal-Mart. It’s for all the regular reasons you might suspect: low wages, gender discrimination, bullying business principles. But, after reading the new copy of Fortune Magazine, I might dare to darken their doorways again.

I’m a closet business junky and subscribe to Fortune, Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, and I scour the biz headlines in my favorite online news outlets. I’ve read a few things about Wal-Mart, including this recent attempt by Chinese workers to unionize. As I also noticed on my last trip to a Wal-Mart, no one who works there smiles. I don’t blame them.

But this cover article discusses the retailer’s attempt to go green. CEO Lee Scott has announced a giant initiative to make the company not only more energy efficient, but to encourage its employees and customers to make environmentally sound choices in their personal lives as well. And I think it just might work.

Ultimately, this move is good for the bottom line. Wal-Mart's stock price has fallen 30% since 2000, and they’ve faced their share of lawsuits and terrible PR. Although the motivation may be financial, and even though Scott hopes this will clean up Wal-Mart’s public image, when Wal-Mart speaks, the world listens.

The impact of changing light bulbs in their own stores, modifying packaging practices, and changing fuel standards on their trucks would be huge:

Wal-Mart found that by eliminating excessive packaging, it could save $2.4 million a year in shipping costs, 3,800 trees, and one million barrels of oil.

On its fleet of 7,200 trucks Wal-Mart determined it could save $26 million a year in fuel costs merely by installing auxiliary power units that enable the drivers to keep their cabs warm or cool during mandatory ten-hour breaks from the road. Before that, they'd let the truck engine idle all night, wasting fuel.

Likewise, by inspiring their average customer:

If each customer who visited Wal-Mart in a week bought one long-lasting compact fluorescent (CF) light bulb, the company estimates, that would reduce electric bills by $3 billion, conserve 50 billion tons of coal, and keep one billion incandescent light bulbs out of landfills over the life of the bulb.

If you’ve seen "An Inconvenient Truth," you learn two things: 1) Big business has to sign on to changing the environment, and 2) If even half of this stuff is true, we’re screwed.

Similarly, if Wal-Mart accomplished half of its goals (Increase the efficiency of its vehicle fleet by 25% over the next three years, and double efficiency in ten years; eliminate 30% of the energy used in stores; reduce solid waste from U.S. stores by 25% in three years), it would make a huge step forward in helping to save the environment from its head-on collision with doom that Al Gore predicts. (The company is the biggest private user of electricity in the U.S.; each of its 2,074 supercenters uses an average of 1.5 million kilowatts annually, enough as a group to power all of Namibia.)

So, here’s to seeing if Wal-Mart can help save the world. They now sell fair-trade coffee (and cheaper than anyone else at $4.71 a pound), buy organic cotton and sell organic food, and buy fish only from approved fisheries who employ sustainable fishing methods (these fisheries are often underbid by those who harm waterways).

Time will tell Wal-Mart’s impact, but the reality is that right now, only the upper class are willing to pay $4 for an energy efficient light bulb. Wal-Mart's base of low and middle class shoppers are addicted to a $0.78 regular bulb, not because they hope this planet goes to hell in a hand basket, but because they need to pay rent, feed and clothe their kids, pay out the nose for healthcare, and hopefully scrape together something for retirement. If anyone can get compact florescent bulbs out of the $4 range (or convince folks on a tight budget it’s worth the extra money), it’s Wal-Mart.

I’ll be waiting and watching (and maybe shopping).