Wal-Mart's Semi-Green Week

Looking to shave operating costs and revive a wilting reputation, Wal-Mart last week unveiled an eco-friendly store near Dallas, Texas, an experimental Supercenter complete with wind turbines, rain-harvesting ponds, bio-fuel recycling and no flush urinals.

For Wal-Mart's purveyors of aw-shucks public relations, the event was a softball. Press documents gushed with enthusiasm and statistics, while officials trumpeted the store's expected savings in water and energy consumption. The retail goliath even said it plans to share its best practices to help the entire retail industry become greener.

Some of the highlights:

  • Bioswales, or channels of shrubs, grass and rock were planted to snag pollutants and help clean water, while permitting it to infiltrate into the ground and replenish groundwater sources.
  • Improved refrigeration systems were built to save 645,000 kilowatts annually, enough power for 65 single family homes for an entire year.
  • Condensation from the store's air conditioning and refrigeration systems will be stored in a pond on the east side of the building, and used to help irrigate the landscaping.
  • A mix of recycled cooking and automotive oil will help heat the facility.
  • Waterless, odorless urinals that keep smells down using a special oil film will result in water savings of hundreds of thousands of gallons per year.

Wal-Mart has contracted the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to test and analyze the system over a three-year period and the company says it plans to share its best practices.

"Sharing the results of the store's experiments with the rest of the retail and development industry could turn low-volume, rare technologies into industry standards," said a company statement. "Wal-Mart hopes to learn new environmental conservation best management practices and benchmarks that will serve as future design standards in the retail industry when it comes to land development and building construction."

The company is working to build a conservationist reputation, publicizing the fact it pays to preserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre it develops. It also floats recycling statistics. Last year, it recycled 2.8 million tons of cardboard, 9,416 tons of plastic, 262 million aluminum cans, glass containers and plastic bottles, and 49 million disposable cameras.

Recent greening aside, it's easy to imagine the waste that falls through the cracks in Wal-Mart's 3,500 facilities in the U.S. alone (company documents say there are also 1,290 international facilities).

A Different Shade of Green

Perhaps not coincidentally, last week's feel-good environmental story hit the news cycle as Wal-Mart made a briefer and markedly less effusive announcement that it was applying for a banking license in Utah.

On July 19 the company asked the Utah Department of Financial Institutions and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for permission to operate an industrial bank which will reside in Salt Lake City and have local employees and board members.

Officials said the intention is to save processing fees currently paid to third party financial institutions that process Wal-Mart's monthly load of 140 million credit, debit and electronic check payments. There will be limited deposits from non-profit and charitable organizations, but the company has "no plans to operate branch banks" and "will not engage in lending of any type," according to a press statement.

The "no-branch" pledge did little to put the banking industry at ease. The Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) responded that the world's largest corporation has the financial prowess to drive credit unions and community banks out of business. It already offers check cashing, wire transfers and money order services for nearly half what other services charge. Small banks fear that an "everyday low cost" Wal-Mart bank -- one that accepts deposits and doles out consumer loans -- could one day appear in every store, eviscerating customer bases. They also worry that Wal-Mart could engage in preferential loaning practices to its affiliates or refuse loans to competitors of an affiliate or parent company. What's more, industrial banks are not regulated by the FDIC.

Why Utah? "We made the decision to file in Utah because of the state industrial banking laws and it is natural to locate in the state capital," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber in an email.

The company has been trying to elbow its way into banking for several years but has failed in past attempts to acquire financial institutions, most notably in California and Oklahoma. But it seems likely that in Utah, where companies such as Target and General Electric have established industrial banks, things might go easier.

If they do, the introduction to freelance journalist John Dicker's new book, United States of Wal-Mart, will taste even truer.

''It's hard to know exactly when it happened, just as it's impossible to know when, or if, it will end," Dicker writes. "But for now it's clear: we're all Wal-Mart's bitches."

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