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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wal-Mart: Green Claims, Red Face

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Julia King took up her local Wal-Mart’s offer to ask them about their “Green Coordinator.” She ended up feeling like she’d been taken for a ride.


CURWOOD: The retailing giant Wal-Mart, known for its cavernous stores with low prices and acres of parking, says it's committed to the environment of the communities in which it operates. But when commentator Julia King tried to find out about her local Wal-Mart's green policies, the company ended up, well, a bit red in the face.

KING: According to a sign in my local Wal-Mart, their mission is to leave each community a little greener than they found it. Another sign embraces every environmentalist's mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle; together we can make a difference. And to show that it's not just talk, Wal-Mart created a position called a green coordinator. It said so on one of their signs. But recently, when I couldn't find recycled paper products in the aisles of my town super Wal-Mart, I went looking for this green coordinator and ended up a little blue.

When I asked to speak to the resident green coordinator, the guy behind the customer service desk looked utterly confused. "The what?" he asked. "The green coordinator," I said again. I pointed to a sign above a check-out counter. "Hmm," he said, thoughtfully, "Just a minute. A green coordinator," he repeated into the phone. "This woman says we have a sign."

After a hushed conversation, he hung up the telephone and came back, "Uh, he says it's at the other store," the man explained, "because we're so close." But miles away, the other store's guy behind the counter was just as perplexed. "Do you want lawn and garden?" he offered.

I settled for the manager, who overcame his initial bewilderment and told me that Diane, he was pretty sure, was the green coordinator, but she worked the night shift. I could call her at 2 AM.

Instead, I decided to call Wal-Mart's national headquarters. I developed a case of carpal tunnel syndrome from pushing option buttons on my phone. I got transferred, disconnected, and did the whole thing over, then finally I got my chance. "A what?" the customer service woman asked. Again I explained about the signs. "Is that for, like, the environment?" "Yes," I answered, triumph welling in my bones.

She paused ever so slightly. Then she said, "Never heard of it."

I've since discovered that Wal-Mart did have a green coordinator program, at least on paper. But they discontinued it on a local level when the coordinators reported that it was interfering with other duties. Now there are three green coordinators in the whole country. The closest one to me is in Kansas.

So why didn't Wal-Mart live up to those feel-good signs? Because big business just means big lies? Perhaps. But consumers also have power, the power to ask questions, to make demands, and to spend our dollars where we choose. Maybe Wal-Mart didn't live up to those signs because their customers never asked them to.

CURWOOD: Julia King lives, writes, and shops in Goshen, Indiana. She comes to us through the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.



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