Wal-mart: Small changes equal big results

If it's hard for a bank to change direction and reputation, what are the chances for the ultimate big-box retailer? The behemoth that is Wal-Mart is trying to find out with a multi-pronged effort to reduce packaging waste and energy use, and bring more green products into its network.

If it’s hard for a bank to change direction and reputation, what are the chances for the ultimate big-box retailer? The behemoth that is Wal-Mart is trying to find out with a multi-pronged effort to reduce packaging waste and energy use, and bring more green products into its network.

Considering that it’s one of the largest corporations in the world, with $345 billion in international sales last year, even a small effort is bound to make huge waves. But Andrew Pelletier, VP corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada, which employs 70,000 Canadians at 278 locations, says that the company’s plans to reduce its environmental impact are anything but modest.

‘We want to become powered 100% by renewable energy; we want to generate zero waste; and we want to become a leader in providing products that are good for the environment,’ he says.

Ambitious goals, but Wal-Mart is already taking some significant steps in that direction. This summer it’s operating using only two-thirds power – which Pelletier says will result in a saving of 4,500 tons of carbon emissions – and on Aug. 29 it is holding a Green Product Fair in Montreal to give suppliers of organic and fair trade products the opportunity to be carried in Wal-Mart stores. ‘We are determined to make room on our shelves for environmentally friendly products from Canadian companies,’ says Pelletier. ‘We already carry a broad range, including a line of organic cotton baby clothes.’ As well, stickers branded ‘For The Greener Good’ will be placed on environmentally preferable products in stores.

But perhaps even more significant is Wal-Mart’s efforts to reduce packaging waste. In June the company held a packaging expo in Toronto which brought 100 of the company’s suppliers together with providers of sustainable packaging. ‘We also introduced our packaging scorecard, which will allow our suppliers to track the sustainability of their packaging and give them a tool to move toward more sustainable packaging,’ Pelletier says. ‘Our goal is to reduce our packaging by 5% over the next five years.’

The company diverted 120 tons of waste from landfill in one year with a plastic film recycling program, and 1,400 more by switching to a plastic box (for transporting products between stores and to and from suppliers) that can be reused 60 times. And when you consider that reducing the size of a box used to ship toys across North America by just one square inch resulted in saving 3,450 tons of corrugated paper, 600 tons of PVC plastic and 300,000 litres of fuel over five years, you begin to realize the impact that the company can have – even if it were only doing it for the cost savings. And that doesn’t include the spillover effect on all its suppliers and competitors.

‘We are a high-profile company, and people watch us closely,’ says Pelletier. ‘Typically, when the industry finds out we’re doing something, we see other businesses doing the same thing. And since we’ve started talking about our environmental initiative, I increasingly see others taking our lead. We’re determined to share the best practices with the industry so others can benefit from what we’re learning on our way. We believe it’s the issue of our time.’