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At Wal-Mart, 'Green' Has Various Shades

Michelle Harvey and Andrew Hutson, staffers for Environmental Defense, one of several
Michelle Harvey and Andrew Hutson, staffers for Environmental Defense, one of several "sustainable value networks" helping Wal-Mart achieve its goals. (By Ylan Q. Mui -- The Washington Post)

But progress across the sustainable value networks has been uneven. Wal-Mart has set a goal to reduce solid waste from its U.S. stores by 25 percent by next October. But it is still developing a system to track waste through its supply chain and admitted in the report that it has no accurate way to measure how much it may have already eliminated.

Wal-Mart also estimated in the report that it buys goods directly from thousands of factories in China and its suppliers source products from many more. It also recognized that the country's tremendous growth -- which critics say is fueled in part by Wal-Mart's insatiable demand for low-cost goods -- "does not come without unintended consequences."

The China network, however, is still putting together a model factory program to showcase best practices with 13 volunteer suppliers. But exactly how those factories can be more environmentally friendly while staying profitable is up for debate.

"We are proud of our first steps, but the challenges we face are significant and complex," the report said.

Still, several environmental groups applauded Wal-Mart for putting out the report, which was originally scheduled to be released this summer, even as they cautioned that more work needed to be done.

"It gives Wal-Mart the opportunity to kind of take a hard look in the mirror," said David Willett, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, a nonprofit group that has been critical of Wal-Mart and has not worked with the company. "I think we still need to see some more from them to show really how committed they are."

In the report, Wal-Mart acknowledged that expectations of the company are high -- and so are its goals. In a recent interview about the environmental initiative before the report was released, S. Robson Walton, son of Wal-Mart's founder Sam Walton and chairman of Wal-Mart's board of directors, said that he was not worried if the company never achieved them.

"A lot of our goals are aspirational," he said. "I think the things that we've accomplished so far have been significant. . . . It's the progress that's important."

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