Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

"Sustainable" Wal-Mart

We have been listening to a presentation by Andy Ruben, Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Sustainability.

If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about the "sustainability" buzzword, so it caused me to flinch a bit when I heard that Wal-Mart had a Vice President with that in his job title.

Yesterday, we heard about "Green Stores" that Wal-Mart is prototyping in McKinney, TX and Aurora, CO. These stores have porous parking lots to reduce stormwater runoff, solar energy panels, recycling of cooking grease to heat the building, etc. Wal-Mart is installing energy efficient lighting in its distribution centers, etc.

Mr. Ruben concentrated his presentation on "sustainable" products such as energy efficient light bulbs, wild-caught seafood, organic foods and baby clothes and environmentally friendly laptops. He even mentioned greenhouse gas and climate change. Oh no.

One good thing that came out yesterday, in my opinion, was the fact that Wal-Mart has no plans to make their stores less "auto-centric." Duh. Can you imagine taking home a TV, barbecue, or lawnmower home on the bus on the back of your bike?

My admiration of Wal-Mart comes from the fact that it epitomizes the best of capitalism and the free market. I also see the benefits it brings to communities that it enters. I like Wal-Mart best when it is being politically incorrect and defiant of its critics. I would be bitterly disappointed if it caved into pressure from their leftist and union opponents who won't be happy until Wal-Mart is destroyed.

But in the spirit of learning new things at this conference, I have to admit that after a conversation I had at breakfast this morning, along with the various presentations, I can see that Wal-Mart's "green" approach is based more on efficiency, cost savings, and appealing to more upscale customers than an attempt to mollify critics. In other words, free market forces at work. That's a good thing.

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bill mcneal said...

Hope you had a nice time in Bentonville...I didn't know if any bloggers would make it since they would probably all have to pay their own way. I was talking last night with two German journalists about having to find a balance in telling the Wal-Mart story, because the data and numbers you receive from WM are as trustworthy as the Wake Up Wal-Mart people. Both sides have an agenda and you'd have to be naive to think that WM isn't a master of spin control to make them look as good as possible. The trick for mainstream journalists, as well as those with an acknowledged bias like yourself, is to find the truth somewhere in between the two. I'm not saying media coverage isn't tilted to the left against Wal-Mart, but accepting WM's data and position without research is no more noble than doing the same with the Wake Up WM folks.

I do find it interesting that you have such a huge problem with WM"s becoming less auto-centric. WM would be the first to tell you that the last great untapped market for them is the urban market. And you simply can't place a 225,000 sf box surrounded by 3 times the necessary parking in an urban fabric without killing what makes those places great.

Just like you wouldn't raze 6 blocks in downtown Bentonville and plop down the same store that you would on the edge of town.

WM seems to have no problem understanding this concept with their ASDA store in the UK, the Seiyu stores in Asia, some of the German stores, as well as the new stores in China.

I've never been one who thinks that WM needs to remove the automobile from the premises, I'd just like to see them develop in such a way that other transportation options are a possibility. I do ride my bike or walk to the Bentonville Wal-Mart, and I have to navigate a place created solely for the automobile to do so.

I can't imagine taking a tv home on my bike, but I can imagine many people wanting to walk down their tree-lined mixed-use street to a WM that fronts the street with parking hidden behind, to grab some fresh produce, toothpaste, a greeting card, and a cd.

If the stores were smaller, built in an urban friendly way (meaning considering bikes, pedestrians and buses, as WELL as cars), I think they'd pacify a large section of the anti-WM crowd without appearing to be caving to outside pressure. If the stores weren't so large and such a pain in the ass to get in and out of, people would make more frequent trips, reducing the need for the giant car-load of groceries.

This is how I shop at Harps, the wonderful downtown grocery store in Bentonville. It's a 5 minute walk past interesting buildings on well-maintained sidewalks. There are other retail offerings mixed in on either side of the store which is the anchor of downtown. Why shouldn't WM consider the same model? Why are you so against WM becoming any less auto-centric?

Be sure to check out John Massengale's blog, and read about the wonderful plan for the new WM in Pass Christian that will be the anchor of a new mixed-use village, with a plethora of housing and retail built around a WM in such a way that it will serve pedestrians and bikers in addition to cars. Again, I'm just about transportation options, not banishing the car.

Again, nice to have you here in town. I hope you enjoyed your stay. Be sure to check my blog for happenings in Bentonville from time to time.


Uncle Bubba said...

Well Tom I can tell Mr. McNeal why Wal Mart has parking lots.Because shoppers drive automobiles. Why do they have large parking lots? Because they hope to accommodate a lot of shoppers who arrived there by automobile.
If McNeal can convince American consumers to shop primarily by 10 speed, Wal Mart will surely adjust and we'll see Super Centers with rows and rows of bike racks, paths and all the aesthetics that he envisions.

April E. Coggins said...

Mr. McNeal: Have you ever visited the Palouse? If you had, you would realize that a bicycle is not a reasonable mode of transportation. We are not flat, we exist among hills that are hundreds of feet high. Not just one or two, but everywhere the eye can see. Our seniors on a fixed income, cannot bicycle to Wal-Mart, Shopko, or anything else. Most young college students can't do it.

It's wonderful and fine that you like shopping where you shop, but please try to imagine that not everyone or everyplace is the same.

bill mcneal said...


I never asked why Wal-Mart has parking lots. Check my post. Nor did I EVER suggest that they get rid of parking lots. And I certainly didn't say that America should shop by 10-speed, so I'm not sure who you're responding to. All I suggested was that I'd like to see them accomodate various transportation options, be it buses, pedestrians, or bicycles. The reason they have to have such huge parking lots, is that they build their stores in such a way that cars are about the only thing that can access them.

If you'll look at the plans for the Pass Christian WM that I linked to, you'll notice that it most certainly has a parking lot, and plenty of room for people using cars to find their way there. But it also acts as a retail anchor of a walkable village, providing everyone, whether they have a car or not, the same convenient access to the store. In large cities (where Wal-Mart is wanting to expand), you can't plop down a giant box surrounded by parking. You have to think outside the box (no pun intended). Parking garages, on-street parking, and sub-surface parking are all ways that other stores have adapted their design to fit areas where people are transported via other methods than solely the auto.

Ms. Coggins...no I have not visited the Palouse, and I"m not suggesting that WM do anything specific there. But let's extend your logic:

If it's not smart to build a store accomodating to bicycles and pedestrians in an area like yours, where it's not feasible or practical, isn't it true that it would be smart to accomodate other transportation options in compact mixed-use neighborhoods or other areas that are flat and conducive to walking or bicycling?

I'm not suggesting that they quit providing parking lots or anything equally asinine. I'm just suggesting that the physical design of their stores, which is often the exact same regardless of site or location, reduces the options for visiting a Wal-Mart to the car, and the car only.

I'll pose your last comment back to yourself. It sounds like you prefer spending copious amounts of time in your car and never walking anywhere. That's fine. Seriously. But why don't you also "try to imagine that not everyone or everyplace is the same," like you said. Just as there are people like yourself who would never shop in a fashion other than by car, there are scores of people who like to have options who regularly shop via bike, on foot, or public transit.

Again, I ask, why would it be bad for Wal-Mart to consider becoming less auto-centric where its appropriate. Who would that hurt? I don't think they should do it to "cave to public pressure," but they should do it because it's a more sustainable form of development that will last long after the cheap oil is gone. (which will happen, it's just a matter of when.)

I appreciate the dialogue.

April E. Coggins said...

Oh geeze, just look at your profile!

In my most masterful six o'clock news anchor voice: "One thing I will tell you: Though I live in Bentonville, I don't work for Wal-Mart™, a Wal-Mart™ vendor, or a vendor to a Wal-Mart™ vendor. I live in the land where Wal-Mart™ is king, and the fate of everyone that I see on a daily basis is inextricably tied to the future of the largest developer of real estate in the world."

Reading your blog < http://www.whiteknuckledwanderer.blogspot.com/ > is even more revealing. Get over yourself. If you want to save the planet, get yourself a great big SUV and carpool to Wal-Mart, thus saving on multiple trips.

You clearly have a "GREEN" agenda and I don't appreciate your point of view. I think it's wrong and short sighted. Your views cost everyday people money and time that we can't afford to waste testing out your idea of Utopia.

bill mcneal said...

Good grief....

You'd think I insulted your mother and spit on your children. Calm down. I know it makes things simpler to just call names and label eveyrone, but that really doesn't serve any purpose for the discussion. The people that know me would think its hilarioius that you think I'm "green." Maybe you and I think different things when we hear that label. I don't think preferring tree-lined community mixed-use neighborhood streets, liking to walk as well as drive, and riding my bike around town hardly makes me green.

I think you miss the joke in my profile because you're not from here. I won't hold that against you. The reason I describe myself in the profile the way I do, is because if you live here, those are the first three questions you have to answer anytime you meet someone. 1) Do you work for Wal-mart? 2) Do you work for a vendor? 3) Do you work for a vendor to a vendor? If you answer no to all three questions, then question #4 is always "Then where in the world DO you work." And the rest is just factual. The fate of Bentonville is tied directly, for better or worse, to the fate of Wal-Mart. That's just the way it is.

And it's appropriate that you like to read my profile to yourself in a news anchor voice. Have you ever seen Newsradio? Bill McNeal? Radio news personality?

The questions I posed in my other two posts have mostly gone ignored and unanswered, so I'm not sure why I'm bothering with anymore of 'em, but.....What's more short-sighted than creating our built envrionment soley around the existence of cheap plentiful oil and cars for everyone?

It's kind of humorous to me that you think I"m talking about grand social experiments to create some sort of Utopia. I'm not talking about Utopia or some leftist smart-growthers idea of social experimentation and curing society's ills through development. I hate to break this to you, but these places that I've described (and you think are utopias) exist ALL OVER THE WORLD. I'm merely talking about continuing that form of development, rather than the suburban pattern of the last 50 years, which is clearly failing. Downtown Bentonville, and the city street grid here is just such a place. So is Fayetteville right down the road. And small-towns, villages, and cities all over the country (and the world) have been designed with these principles in mind. And they've lasted through the years. What people like about downtown Bentonville is exactly what I've described: tree-lined sidewalks that pass by a variety of housing choices, retail and other uses mixed in together, and the ability to have transportation options when you leave your house, instead of knowing that have to get in your car to drive to a shopping center that's right behind your house.

Look, it's simply not sustainable to design everything around the auto like we have since 1945. We have to take people into account in the same way we did for centuries of development before WWII. (and other places still do) And like it or not, cheap gas is going to end. That's not a question. It's a matter of when. What would you do if gas cost 6 dollars a gallon? Even WM is considering these questions, exploring the possibility of rail travel for their goods. (I had dinner with a friend of mine -gasp- who works in WM logistics.)

This might throw some of your thinking off since it will defy your perspective of me as a left-wing liberal wacko "greenie", but I'm a born-again disciple of Christ, my dad was a presbyterian pastor, I voted Republican in the last election, I drive a truck, I'm white and middle class, I'm a supporter of the local chamber of commerce, I'm a big believer in the merits of a free-market system and capitalism, I watch Bill'O Reilly, and I shop at Wal-Mart and think that WM doesn't need to go away and be destroyed. (and, oh yeah, I actually don't want to get rid of everyone's car or SUV.)

Feel free to address some of my carefully reasoned points from the last post that you completely ignored. I thought this might be a nice dialogue between several people with different views, but you've basically taken it down to sarcastic name-calling.

I actually do appreciate your point of view. I might not agree with it, though you've hardly really explained it, except to say that you don't like "green" people, love Wal-Mart, and think that we all should have to drive everywhere. I'm disappointed you can't extend me the same courtesy.