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More to Wal-Mart than Meets the Eye

You might not believe this but I had never been to a Wal-Mart until... last week. Yikes! As I walked around the vast expanse dedicated to the convenient consumption of goods, my head was turning. Row after row of clothing, car batteries, beauty products, organic produce, bicycles, cameras, cookware. And there was more. People were getting their taxes done and indulging in manicures. Others were lunching at a McDonald's. It was enormous, a real shopping behemoth. A one-stop shop.

To be completely honest, I felt a bit overwhelmed. I have just spent the last couple of years living in Central America where the farmer's market I went to on Fridays was larger than the local supermarkets. I also tend to favor smaller "mom and pop" stores or local markets where I can get to know the shopkeepers, so the Wal-Mart shopping experience was completely new to me.

Of course I have heard about Wal-Mart, especially since it decided to go green last year. But being inside the store and browsing through all the products was impressive and I finally understand, if there are 5200 stores today with new ones being built all the time, how Wal-Mart could have such an influence on markets in general and on the environmental movement in particular with their decision to go green. While there will inevitably be things to criticize about the business practices of a giant enterprise like Wal-Mart, I have to say that I have been pretty impressed with some of their green initiatives.

One of their programs works with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and seeks to offset every acre they develop for their stores with an acre of priority wildlife habitat in one of the largest public-private partnerships of its kind. Another program seeks to raise the bar for electronics suppliers by having them analyze the sustainability of the products they sell at Wal-Mart. Certainly, if Wal-Mart can use their size and influence to encourage more sustainable practices in the electronics industry, more power to them.


As you can imagine, as I was strolling through the store one of my big concerns was the seafood counter. There seemed to be enough fish to feed a small army to say nothing of the Jacuzzi-sized lobster tank filled with those unfortunate creatures. Fortunately, as the largest seller of fish in the US, Wal-Mart has considered their impact on fisheries that reached capacity a long time ago. Over the next 3-5 years, Wal-Mart will switch their purchase of wild-caught seafood to that which is certified sustainable by the independent and non-profit Marine Stewardship Council as well as define guidelines for the purchase of farm raised fish with industry experts. This is truly cause for celebration because there is a desperate need for us to change the way we manage the ocean's fisheries and Wal-Mart is poised to make a very important contribution towards achieving a more sustainable approach to providing for a seafood hungry society.

There are a lot of ways to have a positive impact on our world at the individual and corporate level. When Wal-Mart announced they would carry organic foods, they became - in the blink of an eye - the largest organic food retailer. Now they are poised to become the largest retailer of sustainable seafood, which could potentially help to protect small fishermen and drive down the cost of environmentally-responsible aquaculture technology. The implications of a decision by Wal-Mart to go green is enormous and reaches into everyone's lives- even those of us who don't shop there. Economies of scale, so often the bain of the environmentalists when it comes to companies like Wal-Mart, could suddenly become part of the solution.