Wal-Mart goes green, speaker at MU says

Wednesday, September 26, 2007 | 9:03 p.m. CDT; updated 2:47 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Beth Schommer

COLUMBIA — Few companies have received as much criticism of their business practices as Wal-Mart in recent years. But Wal-Mart Senior Vice President Beth Schommer tried to show the company in a more socially responsible light in a lecture Wednesday at MU.

In 2005, Wal-Mart President and CEO Lee Scott outlined three environmental goals for the company: to be supplied by all renewable energy, to produce zero waste and to sell products that sustain natural resources and environment.

“Scott started it as a defensive measure against some of the media talks out there in the marketplace about Wal-Mart,” said Schommer, whose lecture was titled “Going Global, Going Green: The Wal-Mart Way.” “What he found out over time was that it’s becoming smart business.”

Schommer gave three lectures Wednesday. Her other addresses were titled “Advice to My Younger Self” and “Challenges and Changes: Evolution or Revolution?”

Schommer said Wal-Mart has tried to reduce the size of its packaging as part of one of its goals. For example, the company worked with laundry detergent manufacturers to make a detergent three times as strong and, subsequently, smaller. But Wal-Mart ran into problems when the laundry detergent companies felt they would lose advertising space in the store with the smaller bottles. Schommer said they fixed this by working with all the detergent suppliers to make smaller bottles.

Schommer said the new packaging also made more business sense. With smaller bottles, more fit on the truck, which saved shipping costs.

Schommer said Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, expects a domino effect in the market because of its efforts. By having suppliers change the packaging for Wal-Mart, it’s likely they will also be selling the less wasteful products to other retail customers, she said.

Jim Turner, chair of the Missouri Sierra Club, expressed some gratitude that the retail giant has become more environmentally conscious but said Wal-Mart still needs to go further.

“They should be careful with the effect huge parking lots have on streams,” Turner said. “Hot water run-off from the hot parking lots can cause stress for fish and other life in streams.”

Schommer, in her lecture, did lay out some plans to plant more trees in Wal-Mart parking lots to create more shade.

Turner said he also would like to see the locations of Wal-Mart stores move closer to the center of towns instead of at the edges.

“We would urge Wal-Mart not to contribute to urban sprawl,” he said. “Building more in inner cities means people would not have to drive so far to get to the stores, using gasoline.”

Another area Wal-Mart has targeted is reducing the amount of energy it consumes. In her PowerPoint presentation, Schommer pointed out that as a company, Wal-Mart is responsible for consuming 0.6 percent of total energy in the United States and is the largest private user in the world.

A new strategy was implemented to exchange the tube lighting in the freezer section of Wal-Mart to LED lighting. To save energy, the LED lights — or light-emitting diodes — only turn on when there is someone in the freezer aisle.

“They would have kids come in there late at night running down the aisle watching the lights go on and off,” Schommer said.

Wal-Mart plans to make its existing stores 25 percent more efficient in seven years and all new stores 30 percent more efficient in four years.

Wal-Mart executives are not sure how much these new changes will affect the company’s bottom line, but Schommer said Wal-Mart was in this for the long haul, even if profits did not show right away.

“What we will not do is step back and discontinue things,” Schommer said.

Schommer has been affiliated with MU for the past 1 1/2 years. She is an executive in residence in the MU Textile and Apparel Management Department, and she is also on the advisory board of the department.

The relationship between MU and Wal-Mart has deep roots — founder Sam Walton is an MU graduate.

Kitty Dickerson, a textile and apparel management professor who helped bring Schommer to speak, was excited students could hear Schommer’s take on “going green.”

“I think it helps them see the whole social consciousness that the company is trying to project and recognize the power they can have with their own businesses someday,” she said.

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