Wal-Mart’s Compact-Flourescent Push

cfb.jpgThis story, and the new Wal-Mart policy concerning energy conservation it describes, undoubtedly has heads exploding all over Washington, D.C.  On the one hand, good for Wal-Mart to set an ambitous goal to overcome public resistance to a proven technology that will cut energy used for lighting by 75 percent.  On the other hand, this is Wal-Mart, and they do good things the same way they do bad things — like a two-ton gorilla:

In September 2005, (CEO H. Lee Scott Jr.) and Andy Ruben, Wal-Mart’s vice president for strategy and sustainability, drove 6,000 feet to the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire with Steve Hamburg, an environmental studies professor at Brown University, and Fred Krupp, the president of the advocacy group Environmental Defense.

At the summit, where scientists measure climate change 24 hours a day, the men discussed global warming, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and what Wal-Mart could do about them.

“You need to look at what is being sold on the shelf,” Mr. Hamburg recalled telling Mr. Scott over a dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes. He began talking excitedly about compact fluorescent bulbs. “Very few products,” he said, “are such a clear winner” for consumers and the environment.

Soon after returning from the trip, Wal-Mart publicly embraced the bulbs with the zealotry of a convert. In meetings with suppliers, buyers for the chain laid out their plans: lower prices, expanding the shelf space dedicated to them and heavily promoting the technology.

Light-bulb manufacturers, who sell millions of incandescent lights at Wal-Mart, immediately expressed reservations. In a December 2005 meeting with executives from General Electric, Wal-Mart’s largest bulb supplier, “the message from G.E. was, ‘Don’t go too fast. We have all these plants that produce traditional bulbs,’ ” said one person involved with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an agreement not to speak publicly about the negotiations.

The response from the Wal-Mart buyer was blunt, this person said. “We are going there,” the buyer said. “You decide if you are coming with us.”

In the end, as Wal-Mart suppliers generally do, the bulb makers decided to come with the company.

Philips, despite protests from packaging designers, agreed to change the name of its compact fluorescent bulbs from “Marathon” to “energy saver.” To keep up with swelling orders from the chain, Osram Sylvania took to flying entire planeloads of compact fluorescent bulbs from Asia to the United States.

“When Wal-Mart sets its mind to something with a narrow objective like that, they are going to make it happen,” said Jim Jubb, vice president for consumer product sales at Sylvania.

Last February, I wrote this post about “Ban the Bulb,” founded by Dr. Matt Prescott, who asked, sensibly:

If we cannot deny ourselves incandescent light bulbs, which would require minimal sacrifice, how are we ever going to do the really difficult things such as cutting our reliance on fossil fuels, buying smaller cars or reducing our use of finite natural resources?

“Ban the Bulb” seems to approve of Wal-Mart’s policies, but bemoans the fact that the giant discounter dismissed the idea of supporting a ban on energy-wasting incandescent bulbs as “too radical.”

Even if Wal Mart doesn’t want to be too radical, perhaps it could consider the implementation of programme which would allow it to phase out the sale of incandescents over the next 10 years…

This would clearly be a lot easier than tackling the carbon emissions associated with its supply chains, stores, shoppers and distribution network, and would allow the barriers to beneficial change to be seriously tackled.

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