IMAGE: WAL-MART STORE
Donna McWilliam  /  AP
This Wal-Mart supercenter store in McKinney, Texas, was opened last year using energy efficient lighting and other environmental features.
updated 7/12/2006 12:00:17 PM ET 2006-07-12T16:00:17

The greening of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will get another push when the first national environmental advocacy group opens an office near the headquarters of the world’s biggest retailer.

Environmental Defense said Tuesday it plans to base a project manager in Bentonville later this year. Hundreds of Wal-Mart suppliers have set up offices over the years to nurture closer ties with the retailer, but no advocacy groups yet, according to local business experts.

The group is one of several environmental organizations that have been working with Wal-Mart on a host of changes under a green initiative launched last year by Chief Executive Lee Scott.

On the eve of a visit to a Wal-Mart environmental conference by former vice president and anti-global warming campaigner Al Gore, Environmental Defense said it believes Wal-Mart has taken credible steps.

“We think their actions demonstrate they are serious about sustainability and the environment,” said Environmental Defense Executive Vice President David Yarnold.

“Being geographically close to Wal-Mart will increase the number of opportunities to advise them on environmental issues,” Yarnold told The Associated Press.

Wal-Mart had no comment on Environmental Defense’s move.

Started in 1967 as the Environmental Defense Fund, the group’s efforts include partnering with major corporations to improve their environmental practices in ways that make business sense, including helping FedEx introduce hybrid-electric delivery trucks that cut fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by one-third. It says it accepts no donations from its corporate partners.

Goal: 100 percent renewable energy
In Wal-Mart’s case, Environmental Defense was one of several groups Wal-Mart contacted in early 2005 to help formulate a green policy unveiled by Scott last October. Under that plan, Wal-Mart set goals of using 100 percent renewable energy, creating zero waste and selling more products that sustain the environment.

Gwen Rutta, director of corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense, said her group advised the company on most of those goals and has been part of several of 14 issue groups set up by Scott to pursue changes.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s grandson, Sam R. Walton, is on the board of trustees of Environmental Defense, but the group said he was not involved in the Wal-Mart project and recused himself whenever it came before the board.

Wal-Mart is taking the environmental offensive at a time when it is under attack from organized labor and other groups for its business practices, including employee pay and health benefits.

Rutta says Wal-Mart can potentially have a major environmental impact because of its influence over the roughly 60,000 companies it buys from. As the world’s largest retailer, environmental standards it sets for suppliers can spread throughout the industry as suppliers compete to gain space on Wal-Mart’s shelves.

“We’ve come to believe through experience that you really can create environmental progress by leveraging corporate purchasing power. And who’s got more corporate purchasing power than Wal-Mart?” Rutta said.

Rutta said she hoped a presence near Wal-Mart would help her group take part in more meetings, without the need to fly in from its offices in New York, California and elsewhere, and participate more directly in decision making.

“Opening up this office in Bentonville is the most efficient way to work with them,” Rutta said.

Idling, lighting changes
Rutta said Wal-Mart has made a credible start toward its longer-term environmental goals by rapidly making a number of changes in daily operations.

For example, the company told drivers of its 7,000 trucks to stop idling while they load and unload, reducing fuel consumption, and it replaced standard lighting in its nearly 4,000 U.S. stores with more efficient bulbs.

Wal-Mart also is selling more organic food and organic cotton clothing, which reduces pesticide use by growers, and it started a three-year program to improve the environmental standards of all the fleets it buys wild ocean fish from.

“By challenging itself and its supply chain, we really believe that Wal-Mart can create a race to the top for environmental benefits,” Rutta said.

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