Warm and Fuzzy Wal-Mart?

CEO H. Lee Scott rolls out eco-friendly sustainability plans, cheap prescription drugs, and Al Gore.

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Last summer, Al Gore even cozied up to the retailer, appearing in Bentonville to give a well-received talk--and offer some advice: "Following through [on your environmental goals] is the single most important thing that can be done in this country to transform the relationship between NGOs and business," he said, explaining that critics will otherwise be able to say, “'See there, I told you they weren't serious.'"

Of course, not everyone is convinced that Wal-Mart has turned into a big green teddy bear. Pat Purcell, coordinator of Wal-Mart Free NYC, scolded: "The only ‘green' Wal-Mart executives care about is the money in their pockets," and pointed to $5 million worth of fines Wal-Mart has paid since 2003 to state and federal environmental agencies.

Others skeptics have been more direct. Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of a forthcoming book about big box stores said, rather bluntly, "The best thing for the environment would be if Wal-Mart stopped building stores," She added, "What is truly sustainable is local sourcing. Of course we will always have trade, but sourcing locally cuts down dramatically on fuel and energy use."

But Wal-Mart isn’t likely to stop expanding. The week of Scott's "zero waste" announcement, the company also announced plans to build more than 60 million square feet of new retail space.

Even so, there’s no question that Wal-Mart is making an effort to be nice to people who think about "social justice" and environmental issues.  What inspired those gestures?  Some say it’s the company’s formidable new presence in Washington circles.

Scott recently hired Democratic operative Leslie Dach away from the Edelman public relations firm. Advertising Age reports that Dach, who helped Clinton through the impeachment process, will earn up to $3 million over the next two years to manage "one of the most ambitious corporate-image makeovers ever."  One upcoming TV slogan, for example, advertises how Wal-Mart's low prices buy a "whole bunch of freedom." Wal-Mart may have decided to beef up its public image campaign and D.C. presence primarily in response to recent attacks on various social responsibility measures, but Wal-Mart watchers wonder if there are ulterior motives as well--possible future negotiations about trade laws, or to ward off trouble with state and local governments.  

Regardless of intentions, though, Wal-Mart is rapidly becoming the latest company to collapse the distinction between virtue and profit, increasingly common in the age of corporate environmentalism. Lee Scott may be seem like an unlikely heir to the compassionate capitalism corporate philosophy of John Mackey of Whole Foods, but Scott knows that what Mackey wrote in Reason's October 2005 issue is true: "There can be little doubt that a certain amount of corporate philanthropy is simply good business and works for the long-term benefit of the investors."

A few days after the New York gala, on October 24, rock legends the Eagles signed on to a "long-term strategic deal" with Wal-Mart. The statement was filled with references to Wal-Mart's goals to "be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain the earth's resources and environment" and noted that the "Eagles were attracted to a Wal-Mart partnership because of the retailer's drive to take a lead in sustainability and make a difference for future generations."

The Eagles aren't exactly "all alone against the world" in that alliance.  From MTV to the Weinsteins, from Charlie Rose to Leslie Dach to even Al Gore --an all-star roster of elites are rolling up their sleeves, slapping a happy face to their lapels, and welcoming Wal-Mart to the ranks of the do-gooders.


Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

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