Head: So how green is Wal-Mart?
By John Ryan

Travel broadens the mind and while this may or may not be the case, sitting at a retail design conference in Atlanta this week, listening to Charles Zimmerman, was certainly educational.

Zimmerman is a senior Wal-Mart apparatchik and he was instructing delegates in energy-saving initiatives being undertaken by American retail’s largest. Among the many insights on offer were a series of slides detailing how Wal-Mart employs “daylight harvesting” as a technique to cut down on its fuel bills.

After a short while it became apparent that this boiled down to turning down the lights in a store when it’s bright outside. Information was also provided about how pioneering work was being done in-store on low-energy refrigeration and there was even a windmill outside a couple of the stores.

All very laudable, but visiting a nearby Wal-Mart Supercenter, less than five miles from the conference, it was hard not reflect on the size of the roads and the cars using them, as they pitched up in the parking lot at the front of the store. Despite the much-vaunted reduction in the number of big cars on American roads, some of the vehicles using the six-lane highway that formed the approach to this Supercenter were nothing short of monsters.

And there’s the rub. It’s one thing reducing energy consumption in stores and making it a “business imperative” as Zimmerman put it, it’s quite another finding new ways for people to visit a branch. Put this way, the Zimmerman homily might begin to sound a little hollow and if challenged on this point, Wal-Mart would doubtless say that it is not part of its remit to improve the internal combustion engine or the way in which shoppers choose to frequent its outlets.

Fine and dandy, but a US$330 billion-plus business must surely have some lobbying power as regards transport networks. We live in a smaller country and do drive to the shops. The difference is, we walk, from time to time and may even use the occasional bus or train.

On balance, Wal-Mart is less green than it would like to appear and is certainly some distance behind European retailers. It is good that it is doing something, but there remains an awful lot more to be done and, with more than 4,000 stores in continental North America alone, perhaps Wal-Mart should be making greater efforts.