Ten Lessons from Wal-Mart Going Green

Ten Lessons from Wal-Mart Going Green

The company once derided as the “bully of Bentonville” is now serious about green, having concluded that the clean, green, and least wasteful way of doing business is also the most profitable way of doing business. And what works for the world’s biggest company can work for anyone. So here are 10 lessons from Wal-Mart’s journey to the green side —five that apply to anyone, five aimed specifically at businesses.

  1. Carbon = energy = money. Carbon comes from using energy. Energy costs money, which means cutting carbon saves the planet and saves you money. So do what Wal-Mart does: use energy-efficient lighting. Plant shade trees near your house or business. Insulate your attic and, if you have a flat roof, paint it white. Clean the filters in your refrigerator, heater, and AC. Small businesses that followed Wal-Mart’s advice have had their energy bills drop 20 to 60 percent by taking just those steps.
  2. Waste = Money. If Wal-Mart stores in California can cut their waste by 81 percent, anything’s possible. So cut out the disposable water bottles, and use the tap and a glass. Make your own coffee instead of using all those disposable latte cups. Consider bulk foods (they’re cheaper) and products with a longer shelf life, such as organic milk, because a shocking third of our food ends up spoiled and in the trash. Compost. Recycle. Donate. Wal-Mart does all of this — and makes a cool $100 million a year from stuff it used to pay to have hauled to the landfill.
  3. Make sustainability about health. Let’s be honest: we all say we want to be greener, but when it comes to voting with our time and our wallets, not so much. So when Wal-Mart wants to sell green, it emphasizes how sustainable choices are often healthy choices: organic baby food and clothes, for instance, are pesticide-free and therefore healthier for babies. And that does influence consumer behavior.
  4. Start with quick wins. Wal-Mart caught sustainability fever by reducing the packaging on a single toy — and finding it simultaneously saved a forest and $2.5 million. What can a smaller business or household do? Switching out light bulbs will garner visible savings, as will washing in cold water. Or plant a vegetable garden nurtured with your own compost — the single most sustainable thing anyone can do.
  5. listen to the kids. Wal-Mart is adopting sustainable business practices for two reasons: The fi rst is because, right now, sustainability boosts profi ts. The second has to do with the customers of tomorrow — our kids. Today’s Wal-Mart shoppers are not particularly motivated to buy green. But their kids are.
  6. For Businesses: Sustainability starts at the top. no matter the size of the company, CEOs have to make sustainability their priority — and make their direct reports do the same. No one else can.
  7. Everything is fair game. For a top-down sustainability mandate to succeed, it must “infect” thinking throughout a business. it can’t be the job of a separate sustainability team but rather the consideration of every department and line worker, from buyers to truck drivers to warehouse foremen.
  8. Race to the top, not the bottom: Keeping the company at the point where emissions, waste, toxins, and sprawl are legal is a race to the bottom. New thinking about the environment perceives it as an opportunity to use sustainability for competitive advantage, a tool to make a business leaner, cleaner, and less wasteful, beyond anything that regulations require — a race to the top.
  9. Burst the bubble, embrace the critics: When secretive, insular Wal-Mart decided to throw open its doors to critics, inviting environmentalists and activists inside the infamous “Bentonville Bubble,” organizations like the environmental Defense Fund, Conservation international, and the natural resources Defense Council were happy to lend their expertise for free.
  10. Don’t wait for the market, lead it: Wal-Mart decided to get out in front of consumer demand on sustainability and found that it served the bottom line anyway — it pays to be green. But today’s sustainability eff orts mean the company will be ready when consumer demand does catch up.

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