Asda owner goes green
Wal-Mart, owner of UK supermarket Asda, has often come under criticism for its aggressive pricing and rate of expansion, but now it is launching a new charm offensive. The US behmoth said yesterday it is looking towards a greener, more ethical future.

Lee Scott, the US retailer's chief executive, said: 'As one of the largest companies in the world, with an expanding global presence, environmental problems are our problems.'

In a speech to senior Wal-Mart managers, the retailer announced the launch of a six-pronged attack, comprising the environment, healthcare, wages, product sourcing, community involvement and diversity in an effort to silence its critics and boost the group's ethical credentials.

Campaign group Wake-Up Wal-Mart claimed the retailer is simply engaging in a publicity stunt. A statement on the group's web site yesterday read: 'Wal-Mart and Lee Scott meet with 'mystery critics' that are not even willing to be public with their criticism, and release a speech that is more about a publicity stunt than about substantive changes to improve Wal-Mart.'

The perception that Wal-Mart threatens small business, pays associates low wages to keep prices low and has expanded at a rate that means, according to Scott, 'if Wal-Mart were a city, we would be the fifth-largest in America', has long raised concerns.

However, the move shows an apparent shift in priorities for the retailer and comes as a result of a year of meetings between Wal-Mart and critics, including citizen groups and non-profit organisations. These have been an attempt on Wal-Mart's part to better understand its critics and iron out grievances.

Scott maintains that Wal-Mart's environmental goals are simple and straightforward, such as 'to be supplied 100 per cent renewable energy, to create zero waste and to sell products that sustain our resources and environment.'

Although Scott demonstrated a renewed commitment in his speech, he added: 'These goals are both ambitious and aspirational, and I'm not sure how to achieve them - at least not yet. This will obviously take some time.'

Wal-Mart aims to 'aggressively' invest about US$500 million a year in technologies and innovation to help restore balance to climate systems and reduce greenhouse gases. The retailer has proposed it will reduce greenhouse gases 'at our existing store, club and DC base around the world by 20 per cent over the next seven years'.

Scott will also increase fleet efficiency by 25 per cent in the next three years and initiate a US-based programme to help instruct suppliers on how to reduce their own emissions.

Raising pay was also on the agenda for the company but it was the US minimum wage that Wal-Mart remarked upon rather than the pay of their associates. Scott said: 'The US minimum wage has not been raised in nearly a decade and we believe it is out of date with the times. Our wage structure [at Wal-Mart] is another area critics have targeted. But I ask anyone to do the math. Even slight overall adjustments to wages eliminate our thin profit margin.'

Other initiatives include a healthcare plan for its 1.2 million workers and Scott plans to 'start by taking care of our own'.

According to reports, the company is facing the largest-ever class-action lawsuit, alleging it discriminated against women in pay and promotion opportunities.