updated 7/13/2006 10:12:03 AM ET 2006-07-13T14:12:03

Former Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday praised Wal-Mart for a newfound focus on environmental sustainability, saying the retailer showed there is no conflict between the environment and the economy.

“I believe that this kind of commitment is so important that the rest of the world is likely to be listening and learning,” Gore told an auditorium of more than 800 Wal-Mart employees, suppliers and outside experts who are advising the company.

Chief Executive Lee Scott last October said Wal-Mart would become a leader in sustainability, with three goals: reducing waste to zero, moving toward using only renewable energy and offering more products made in a way that preserves the environment.

Gore spoke after screening his anti-global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” He received a standing ovation and cheers from the audience.

Gore said some people questioned whether Wal-Mart was serious about the environment, then added: “Have you ever know Wal-Mart not to follow through on a big commitment of this kind? I have not.”

Gore said Scott had recognized not just the danger of global warming and a moral obligation to act, but also a business opportunity in innovation.

“The message from Wal-Mart today to the rest of the business community is, there need not be any conflict between the environment and the economy. We will find the way not only to reconcile (those), but to find new profits and new opportunities as we do the right thing,” Gore said.

Scott called the retailer’s focus on the environment a “higher purpose” in line with founder Sam Walton’s vision of the company. Scott told the conference that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. must use its size to improve environmental standards in-house and among its 60,000 suppliers.

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

Union-funded critics said Wal-Mart was not doing enough to counter their claims it skimps on worker pay and benefits. Wal-Mart denies those claims.

“I think most people have a difficult time understanding why Wal-Mart can’t become both a more ’environmentally friendly’ as well as a more ’employee-friendly’ company that pays a living wage, provides affordable health care, and is good for America,” said Chris Kofinis from campaign group WakeUpWalMart.com.

During the conference, company officials said Wal-Mart has huge potential to reduce greenhouse gases.

Last year, Wal-Mart emitted the equivalent of 20.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, while the best estimate for its supply chain — all the production and shipping needed to fill Wal-Mart shelves — is 10 times that, said Jim Stanway, director of project development in Wal-Mart’s energy department.

Wal-Mart disclosed its carbon dioxide figure for the first time this year.

Scientists have become increasingly concerned in recent years about the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels. Average worldwide temperatures have risen this century as a result of what many believe is a greenhouse effect from that pollution.

Charles Zimmerman, who works in developing new Wal-Mart stores, said the company was already reducing energy demand by installing more efficient lighting and retrofitting refrigerators.

New store prototypes in the works will use design and technology to be 30 percent more efficient than today’s stores and in the longer term 50 percent more efficient.

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