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Gore screens film at Wal-Mart HQ

Lisa Napoli Jul 12, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: He’s not exactly a leading man type. But Al Gore’s been a box office smash this summer. His film about global warming has made more that 15 million dollars so far. That’s big box office for a documentary. It’s called An Incovenient Truth. And today Gore gave an screening at what might seem to be an unlikely location. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli says it wasn’t your typical day at the movies.

LISA NAPOLI: Wal-Mart held a sustainability meeting at company headquarters today, and Al Gore screened the film for about a thousand employees and other guests. It’s the latest in a series of efforts by Wal-Mart to paint itself green.

This from a company not exactly known for its social conscience. The apparent culture clash isn’t lost on environmental writer Amanda Griscom Little.

AMANDA GRISCOM LITTLE: It’s no coincidence that Wal-Mart is taking the offensive at a time when it’s under attack from the organic community and the labor community.

But Little says there’s more than greenwashing going on. She says Wal-Mart’s chief executive does seem to mean business:

GRISCOM LITTLE: H. Lee Scott, CEO, has said he wants to transform the company into one that runs 100 percent on renewable energy and produce zero waste. He said he wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent over the next seven years, double fuel efficiency in the truck fleet, reduce solid waste by 25 percent, double offerings of organic foods. . . . It’s a very bold and pretty shocking statement.

Environmental watchdogs count lots of reasons for Wal-Mart to actually follow-through. Venture capitalist Joe Sibilia runs Corporate Social Responsibility Wire. He says the biggest incentive is the promise of more money:

JOE SIBILIA: There’s a certain element of fear and greed associated with their actions — fear they’ll be attacked by the activists. And, frankly, there’s a business argument for being responsible and sustainable. You cut costs, you attract much higher quality talent.

And you sell more. Not to mention Wal-mart is so big that a little flap of its green wings can go a long way, just like the Butterfly Effect. Consider the tale of the organic cotton yoga outfits. Wal-Mart says it recently sold nearly 200,000 of them over just a couple of months. And that now makes Wal-Mart the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world.

Charles Fishman wrote the book “The Wal-Mart Effect.” He’s happy about today’s dialogue:

CHARLES FISHMAN: Regardless of how you think about Wal-Mart or former Vice President Al Gore, understanding the science behind what’s happening with global warming and enlisting the brains at one of the most influential corporations in the history of the world . . . That’s good news.

Fishman says sure, there’s reason to doubt Wal-Mart’s intentions. He said the company failed on a promise in the ’90s to open more environmentally-friendly stores. But he says focus on the future, not the past:

FISHMAN: If the only appropriate reaction is cynicism, then Wal-Mart won’t actually behave better.

At the moment, Wal-Mart seems more pick-up than Prius. But writer Amanda Griscom Little says their leadership is something environmentalists are grudgingly starting to accept.

GRISCOM LITTLE: They’re beginning to recognize that perfection can’t be the enemy of the good. If real environmental change is going to happen, big business has to be involved. I mean, they drive markets, they control millions of jobs — in the case of Wal-Mart — and what one major company does is far more than what thousands of smaller companies can do in terms of moving markets.

And that may be the only way to avoid Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.”

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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