First came Wal-Mart's decision to push for lower prices for compact fluorescent lightbulbs, those swirly, energy-efficient alternatives to the incandescent ones. Then, it started offering redesigned milk jugs that, by decreasing storage and delivery costs, also will reduce energy consumption. And, most recently it announced a new emphasis on stocking its stores with more produce grown locally rather than shipped from longer distances.
Suddenly, Wal-Mart is getting harder to hate.
Could Wal-Mart, dubbed Sprawl-Mart by its detractors, actually be turning into a friend of the Earth, a foe of excessive energy consumption and even that trendiest of utter feel-goodliness, an actual locavore?
Well, let's not get carried away here - especially for city dwellers, you still may have to drive miles and miles out of your way to get to a Wal-Mart and you still will find them filled with all manner of your favorite petroleum-based plastic products, those highly-processed, fructose-intense snack foods and just all that mass-consumerist stuff that will clog your closets until you toss them out to clog the landfills.
Still, the retailing giant may have discovered something that will do more to promote the environmental cause than mere good intentions - it can pay to go "green."
Let's hear it for self-interest. That has always seemed like the missing link, the one thing that prevented well-meaning people from not just thinking about doing what was right for the environment, but actually acting on it. For too long, eco-correctness has seemed to many like a luxury, something you could afford if you were a rich movie star like Leonardo DiCaprio, something that was a nice little hobby for the Whole Foods-Whole Paycheck set. But now, even the proudly downscale, the cheap-at-all-costs Wal-Mart has seen the light, or at least the cost savings, in doing the right thing environmentally.
If you're wincing every time you fill up your gas tank, imagine what it costs Wal-Mart to fuel up all those trucks you see on the highway. No wonder the company started buying more produce from local growers, and shortening the average 1,500 miles that fruits and vegetables generally travel between the farmer and the consumer. It's the same motivation that has led the company, and others, to move toward a new, flat-topped milk jug that can be stacked and more easily stored and transported. According to a New York Times graphic, the new design allows for a twice-weekly rather than four- or five-times-weekly delivery schedule to the typical Sam's Club.
Because of its sheer size, what Wal-Mart does matters, whether or not you shop there. When it decided to get behind CFL bulbs a couple of years ago, it used its considerable negotiating power to get General Electric to lower the price.
Imagine that, Wal-Mart using its power as a force for good. That it helps Wal-Mart as well - according to one news account, the retailer has sold nearly 200 million CFLs - doesn't hurt.
The news hasn't all been good for Wal-Mart of late, reminding many of the reasons it has become one of those companies that so many love to hate.
About the same time it was touting its newfound support of local farmers, the Wal-Mart of old reared its head: A Minnesota judge ruled last week that it had violated employment laws by denying workers meal and rest breaks and forcing them to work off the clock.
The ruling stemmed from one of numerous lawsuits that workers have filed against Wal-Mart over the years, saying managers regularly kept them from breaks or made them work through lunch hours or after they'd clocked out for the day.
According to news accounts, the judge in Minnesota found that Wal-Mart violated wage and work conditions laws more than 2 million times. He threatened fines of $1,000 per violation, which could end up totalling more than $2 billion in penalties.
Wal-Mart is said to be considering an appeal. Given that big numbers are one thing Wal-Mart understands, maybe a big fine will have the same effect on the company that big fuel costs have had - meaning, the kind of motivation to change how it does business.
Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/