Here comes Wal-Mart, there goes carbon

Rep. Tom Rooney Member of Congress (R-FL)
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You never heard of the world’s greatest—and most unlikely—environmentalist, Mike Duke.

See? Told you.

While Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) ponder what to do about carbon in our atmosphere, Duke has done more to take more carbon out of more lives than any person on the planet.

And in the next five years, he will do even more.

Right behind Duke are Bob McDonald and Stuart Woolf, and hundreds of others who are hardly household names. All warriors in the fight for renewable and sustainable energy.

Duke, Smith and Woolf are the CEO’s of the world’s largest retailer, consumer products company and one of the world’s biggest tomato farms. Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble and Los Gatos Tomatoes.

They are leaders in what the Harvard Business Review calls the new megatrend: Sustainability. Big companies around the world figured out that reducing carbon means reducing energy, which means saving money. The magic words.

Instead of hiring an army of lawyers to fight a new law they think will cost them money, companies are hiring the top people from around the world to help them figure out how to voluntarily (and enthusiastically) reduce carbon.

With prices for renewable energy falling, and costs of fossil fuels rising, and solar incentives at all time highs, these CEO’s picked a perfect time to change the world.

Wal-Mart’s story is probably the most dramatic—and instructive: With 2 million employees, 8400 stores, $400 billion in sales, 100,000 suppliers and lots of baggage as an environmental bad guy, in 2005 Wal-Mart decided to go green.

It all began when leaders from the the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and others convinced Wal-Mart that reducing carbon would help save the planet. And save Wal-Mart a basketful of money.

Almost overnight, Wal-Mart changed the way it acquired, stored, handled, cooled, heated, sold, and disposed of its products. They reached into every part of their retail operations and found savings in trucking, refrigeration, energy,
lighting, and on and on and on. Last year, Wal-Mart used 4.8 billion fewer plastic bags. Its trucks Wal-Mart delivered 77 million more cases while driving 100 million fewer miles.

And on and on and on all over every store.

But Wal-Mart soon realized that 90 percent of the embedded energy in its products came not from their stories, but from their suppliers.

So that had to change too.

Wal-Mart set three goals:

  1. 100 percent renewable energy;
  2. Zero waste; and
  3. Sustainable products for customers and practices for employees.

Every Wal-Mart supplier recently received a 15-part questionnaire, asking for details on energy use and renewable practices. The company intends to use this information to issue a Sustainability Index for each of its products.

No one knows what that looks like yet because it won’t be ready for a year or two. But it hardly even matters: All over the globe, companies are racing to reduce their carbon footprints to get business from Wal-Mart. And P&G. And IBM.

Twentieth Century Fox changed the way it makes and packages DVD’s. In the Central Valley of California, Stuart Woolf is using solar and other renewable practices to help meet Wal-Mart’s goals. The same farmers who think every new government program is some kind of plot that will cost them money now look at renewable energy as a profit center.

And Mike Duke is their new best friend.


Tom Rooney is president and CEO of SPG Solar in Novato, Calif.,