Bentonville, Ark., seemed like an Emerald City of sorts Wednesday as hometown giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. put on display its latest efforts to go green.
The company hosted former Vice President Al Gore's talk on global warming, welcomed an environmental group's plan to locate an office in the corporate neighborhood and talked about the progress it was making to improve the global effects of its worldwide operations.
Not everyone was buying it. But Gwen Ruta with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense said, "We've seen enough movement to convince us that they are serious.
"If they are able to meet their goals, then we are talking about transformational change," said Ruta, the director of corporate partnerships for Environmental Defense, which announced plans to recruit a staff member to work full time in Bentonville starting later this year.
Gore visited Bentonville to speak at a Wal-Mart conference on the environment and screened his film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."
Gore and his wife, Tipper, later joined Wal-Mart Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr. and his wife for dinner.
"Mr. Gore's approach has been that he will go anywhere and talk to any audience that wants to learn about climate change and how to solve it," said Kalee Kreider, a spokeswoman for Gore. "Preaching to the choir is easy; the idea is to reach out to a big tent. Wal-Mart is part of that effort."
The whirlwind of eco-consciousness is part of the corporation's year-old effort to improve its tarnished image with environmentalists.Wal-Mart, the world's biggest private user of electricity, has faced mounting scrutiny for its effect on the environment, as well as local communities and the nation's labor force.
On Oct. 24, Scott announced a slate of ambitious goals, saying Wal-Mart would increase the energy efficiency of its truck fleet - the nation's largest - by 25% in the next three years, and double the efficiency in the next decade.
Scott also said the company would design a new prototype store that would be 25% to 30% more efficient and would produce 30% less greenhouse gas emissions. The company also said it would reduce solid waste from U.S. stores by 25% in the next three years.
Still, some say Wednesday's announcements were little more than environmental politicking by the corporate giant, calling it a strategic concession as Wal-Mart bids to expand in areas such as the West Coast that have resisted the retailer.
"It's about their capacity to ameliorate opposition to building new stores in places like California, where environmental issues are taken seriously," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara who has studied Wal-Mart and edited a forthcoming book, "Wal-Mart: The Face of 21st Century Capitalism."
"This does not affect their bottom line," Lichtenstein said of the environmental initiatives, adding that he saw them as a distraction from problems with Wal-Mart's workforce. "They are not going to make any accommodations to labor or on the wage front."
Jim Stanway, director of project development in Wal-Mart's energy department, said Environmental Defense was one of a handful of nonprofits that serve an advisory role to the retailer, a list that includes the 1-million-member Natural Resources Defense Council.
"They've helped us learn about climate-change issues and greenhouse gas," Stanway said of the nonprofits.
He urged critics to look at Wal-Mart's environmental achievements, which include switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs in all 3,700 of its U.S. stores, as well as selling fresh fish that have been caught using environmentally friendly methods. The retailer also has issued a no-idle policy for its truck drivers, which reduces emissions and lowers diesel consumption.
Jon Coifman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the nonprofit had worked with Wal-Mart since last summer on environmental issues such as energy and emissions, wasteful packaging and paper products and pollution in China, as well as larger concerns such as global warming.
"As the largest economic presence on the plane, they have an enormous impact on the planet," Coifman said. "If Wal-Mart could achieve significant reductions in global warming emissions, and reset the benchmark, that is a big deal."
In a memo sent to employees in May, Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke wrote, "Lee Scott himself admits that the initiative was begun as a defensive strategy, but as they have begun implementing the program, they have found win-wins that improve both the environment and Wal-Mart's bottom line."
Sam Walton Jr., the founder's grandson, serves on the board of Environmental Defense, Ruta said.
Walton had recused himself from talks on the Wal-Mart work. The 400,000-member Environmental Defense received about $650,000 in donations from the Walton Family Foundation, according to tax records from 2003 and 2004.
Ruta said that money would not go toward its work with the corporation.
Wal-Mart still faces a number of problems, both environmentally and in its workforce. The company faces the nation's largest class-action suit, which alleges discrimination against as many as 1.5 million of its female employees. And as recently as December, Wal-Mart faced a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles into its handling of hazardous waste.