Wal-Mart Proving That Green Can Indeed Mean Something

The environmentally friendly green retail campaigns have been an embarrassing mix of pseudo-environmental policies that have little real benefit to those true policies that have real impact. Rather, these campaigns are akin to demanding that recycling be enforced.

My favorite corporate environmental "big reach" probably goes to FedEx back in 1994, when it argued that changing its name from FederalExpress to FedEx was environmentally friendly because—I kid you not—the reduced amount of paint on their aircraft reduced the amount of fuel they needed to burn.

But Wal-Mart and a handful of others have been trying to do green the right way, with policies that will have a significant environmental impact and that also improve operations.

For instance, Wal-Mart has been pressuring suppliers to shrink the size of their boxes. That's not a big problem, as the boxes are often not full anyway. But it does mean a reduced space to hype the product. Wal-Mart's response: A commitment to suppliers that their shelf space will remain the same size.

The impact? With just a single product—insisting on only concentrated liquid laundry detergent—Wal-Mart said it had saved more than 400 million gallons of water, more than 95 million pounds of plastic resin and more than 125 million pounds of cardboard. To put Wal-Mart's massive size into context, about one out of every four liquid laundry detergents purchased in the U.S. are bought at a Wal-Mart.

But it gets better. The product-shrink has already eliminated some 500 trucks from the road, according to a story in Fortune Magazine.

In the U.K., Tesco is leading a group of retailers and manufacturers in a creative green truck-sharing program.

The retailers—including Asda and Waitrose—are working with suppliers including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Coors, Northern Foods, Nestlé, United Biscuits and Unilever. That campaign is promising to remove some 800 large trucks from British roads and save more than 6 million gallons of diesel fuel, along with reductions in hauling, warehousing and vehicle maintenance costs, according to the Telegraph newspaper.

"Nestlé used to deliver 15 lorry (large truck) loads of goods a day from its factories in the north of England to its distribution centre in the Midlands, of which as many as three returned empty," the story said. United Biscuits, "which was also running empty trucks, has teamed up with Nestlé, and the companies have cut out many of those wasted journeys."

Today, a wide range of retailers has been talking about green. But the fact that it's newsworthy when a few actually do something meaningful is sad.