04/15/2009 11:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Wal-Mart and a World of Good

Wal-Mart. Can you remember a time when that name, and all it conjures, didn't even exist outside the teeny town of Bentonville?

Now Wal-Mart has an environmental footprint equal to small nations. Wishing Wal-Mart would disappear won't make it so, and probably wouldn't change the simple fact that one out of three Americans -- roughly 100 million people (ten times the population of Sweden!) -- visit Wal-Mart each week to find everything from apples to vitamins.

Just like a small country, Wal-Mart has some seemingly impossible but good and lofty long-term sustainability goals: zero waste, 100 percent renewable energy, more environmentally preferable products for its consumers.

Wal-Mart is like a small country, too, in that the effects are diffuse - the company estimates that just 8 percent of its footprint is under its direct control, while 92 percent is generated through its suppliers.

In that same vein, Wal-Mart is, for all its downsides, better run and more profitable than the U.S.A., and seems more efficient at making some of desirable changes that our government doesn't seem to have the will or the way to do. Wal-Mart's huge clout has made it successful in setting up a packaging scorecard (6,000 suppliers, 97,000 products). The scorecard has, among other things, gotten HP to reduce the consumer packaging on one new laptop by 97 percent - a 65 percent reduction when measured through the entire supply chain. The in-a-cloth-bag laptop takes the air out, so 25 percent fewer trucks are needed to get the merchandise to the store.

What Wal-Mart has figured out is that green is good for business. Last year it changed shipping crates from cardboard to plastic (they can be reused about 60 times) which reduced waste and carbon emissions, and saved $4.5 million a year to boot.

And Wal-Mart is trying to fill its product pipelines with more green products, and attempting to figure out what works for its customers -concentrated laundry detergent- as well as what doesn't -strange square milk jugs.

The main motivation for cheering Wal-Mart on in all its attempts to do good is that we all want, need, and dream about great, green department stores where we can find all the fabulous eco-products that currently are tucked away in lots of different boutiques and stores.

And now that green is seeping into the mainstream, if Wal-Mart doesn't satisfy everybody's increased demands for eco-friendlier products, someone else will - like Ebay, who recently announced that the launch of, a site that brings together third-party verified socially responsible products under a single online roof. Neither Wal-Mart or WorldofGood is quite as convenient as the old corner store, but with a little luck that may soon go greener, too.

More from TreeHugger on Wal-Mart
::Wal-Mart: The Next Steps Toward Sustainability
::It"s Getting Harder To Hate Wal-Mart
::Wal-Mart Now US Largest Buyer of Locally Grown Produce
::Going Green Is Strictly Business: Just Ask Wal-Mart
::Wal-Mart"s Eco-efforts: Mainstream Green or Pipe Dream?
::Bisphenol A: How Wal-Mart Became The New FDA