Monday, September 25, 2006

Could WalMart become an environmental leader?

If I've learned anything over the decades, it's that one should never, ever, say never.

I am no fan of WalMart, as some of you may know. While I don't deny how successful the company is from a financial point of view, I've always been uncomfortable with a business model that drives it's competitors out of business and creates a master/slave relationship with its suppliers.

So I've made a point of not shopping at WalMart. It's just a personal thing with me. I figure if I feel strongly about something, I should be prepared to put my money (or time, or whatever) where my mouth is. So I don't shop there.

So that's just me, right? And it's not like I'm going to have any effect whatsoever on a big company like WalMart. The actions of one person are not that big a deal. Or are they?

In fact, if enough people were to do one thing, it could have a tremendous effect. So while I think of WalMart as a bad corporate citizen, I've got to admit that their sheer size could also make them a powerful tool for doing good things.

What made me realize this is a recent story on the Fast Company website, called How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World? One. And You're Looking At It.. It talks about how a powerful tool in the battle to reduce the growth of greenhouse gases could be as a simple as changing the light bulbs you have in your house. That's right -- you. One person. Here's what I'm talking about.

We've all seen those compact fluorescent bulbs for sale at the store. But if you're like most people, you probably don't buy them. They're too expensive and you figure the light they give off is terrible, right? Well, times have changed and so have those bulbs -- in almost every way.
One thing hasn't changed: the energy savings. Compact fluorescents emit the same light as classic incandescents but use 75% or 80% less electricity.

What that means is that if every one of 110 million American households bought just one ice-cream-cone bulb, took it home, and screwed it in the place of an ordinary 60-watt bulb, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. One bulb swapped out, enough electricity saved to power all the homes in Delaware and Rhode Island. In terms of oil not burned, or greenhouse gases not exhausted into the atmosphere, one bulb is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the roads.

That's the law of large numbers--a small action, multiplied by 110 million.

Those are startling numbers. And there's a lot more startling stuff in the article. It's a fascinating look at how a company like WalMart makes decisions on how to do its business and how those decisions can have significant effects.

This fall, WalMart will launch a major offensive on its customers to convince them to buy those energy efficient bulbs. And they're dead serious about it. And if past actions are any indication, when WalMart decides to get serious about anything, it's likely to happen.

This is quite the story. It's startling to look at the implications. This could have a major effect on our world and I've got to admit I'm a bit stunned to think that a company like WalMart is about to lead such a significant revolution.

But perhaps I shouldn't be. Again, looking back over my own experiences, it's clear that significant change in our world has only come about when it's become good business. We often overlook that. And while it can sometimes take other factors to bring businesses on board, a good idea has to make business sense to become successful.

So, while I ever shop at WalMart again? I'm not planning to but I will certainly be watching what happens with interest. And while I might not be willing to give them my business, I'll certainly give them their due and congratulate them for such a significant socially responsible campaign.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting related information....aparently Walmart tested using natural light, instead of flourescent lighting, in one of their stores and sales increased 40%. If these types of corporations see a financial incentive for sustainable or "green" design then they whole movement will take a huge (yet ironic) step forward. No word yet on how to reconcile a big box with the social side of the three legged sustainability stool however.

Anonymous said...

oops...that last one was me.

Dave said...

Back when Lawrence Lessig first starting fighting copyright battles (and losing) he realized that if significant change was going to be effected, it had to come through business. He's a big part of new campaigns, like the Creative Commons copyright licence, which attempt to affect significant changes without trying to break the rules.

I suspect that something similar will (and is) happening with the "green" movement. It's going mainstream and we're going to see a lot of interesting things come out of that.

Going "green" shouldn't (and doesn't) mean less performance, or having to put up with something less. Like many of your designs in architecture, a better idea may have a slightly higher initial capital cost, but it will definitely pay off in the long run. And being green is all about looking at the longer term impacts of how we're living.