Unless you were living in a cave four or five years ago, you know Wal-Mart was under relentless assault by, I’ll just call them activists. Complaints included: They weren’t providing health care to enough people. They weren’t paying overtime. Their goods were manufactured in sweat shops overseas. When unions tried to organize their meat cutting operations, Wal-Mart exited the meat cutting business. Their executives were making too much money. The company was making too much money. Part of the real gripe was that Wal-Mart had saturated the rural and small town markets and they had started to impinge into larger markets. Social elites in university towns did NOT want to sip cappuccinos across the street from Wal-Mart, or see Wal-Mart flyers in the Sunday paper, or perhaps worst of all, they did not want to attract the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart to their enclave.
It seemed all of a sudden, the whining stopped, overnight. Why? I would say their green construction, energy efficiency, and purchasing muscle to get suppliers to become more efficient and green probably shot the knees out of this protest movement. Suddenly it seems, Wal-Mart had become one of the greatest corporate forces for green business practices in the country. This was like one of the Hatfields marrying into the McCoys – a reluctant truce between the activist crowd and Wal-Mart. This was a Joan Rivers kind of a makeover (have you seen her lately?).
I attend a half dozen or so mid-size to major energy efficiency conferences a year. Wal-Mart’s energy efficiency and green purchasing requirements are showcased at many of these events by keynote speakers. Ironically, Wal-Mart was lambasted for its hardball thuggery in negotiating pricing deals with its suppliers. I don’t hear the same for these green requirements. Playing the green card has gotten Wal-Mart out of protester jail.
Not only has the green card gotten Wal-Mart out of jail, it has new competitors scrambling. As one case in particular, a grocery spokesperson stated a few years ago that [paraphrasing], “We do not want to become Wal-Mart. We do not want to compete with Wal-Mart.” To one extent this was smart. If you compete with Wal-Mart on price, they would crush you. However, Wal-Mart’s green initiatives have positioned them to gain market share at the expense of these former non-competitors. When another company is stealing your customers, it’s competition whether you want to compete with them or not. Not only is Wal-Mart greening its business and its supply chain, it is greening its competitors.
As the skeptical engineer, I ask myself, are they really saving energy in their stores? You can see it when you walk into their stores. As their skylights stream copious daylight, their lighting fixtures are dimmed down to a tiny percentage of full power. I am told that in some stores as you walk the refrigerated case isles, occupancy sensors flip on their low-power LED case lighting. Now that is demonstrable energy savings. Even energy neophytes can see what’s happening there. Ok. This is all dandy. What’s the bottom line? It appears these stores are not the Toyota Priuses of the grocery and retail world if you look at their “gas mileage”, or energy use per square foot. There is plenty of room for improvement.
On a completely unrelated note, it seems the State of California is following my advice to see that stimulus money spent on energy efficiency is actually resulting in energy savings (November 17 rant). The California Energy Commission has issued a $4 million request for proposals to verify savings occur. I’m sure I influenced that – heyaaah, right. Hahahaha.