Al Gore Goes to Bentonville

The parade of environmental luminaries to the world headquarters of Wal-Mart continues in earnest, with former VP Al Gore spending yesterday in Bentonville screening An Inconvenient Truth and talking to executives, employees, suppliers and outside environmental experts. Gore got a warm reception, and responded in kind:

Former Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday praised Wal-Mart for a newfound focus on environmental sustainability, saying the retailer showed there is no conflict between the environment and the economy.

“I believe that this kind of commitment is so important that the rest of the world is likely to be listening and learning,” Gore told an auditorium of more than 800 Wal-Mart employees, suppliers and outside experts who are advising the company. …

Gore spoke after screening his anti-global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He received a standing ovation and cheers from the audience.

Gore said some people questioned whether Wal-Mart was serious about the environment, then added: “Have you ever know Wal-Mart not to follow through on a big commitment of this kind? I have not.”

Gore said Scott had recognized not just the danger of global warming and a moral obligation to act, but also a business opportunity in innovation.

“The message from Wal-Mart today to the rest of the business community is, there need not be any conflict between the environment and the economy. We will find the way not only to reconcile (those), but to find new profits and new opportunities as we do the right thing,” Gore said.

Were Gore making another run for the Presidency (and I really don’t think he is), I definitely would’ve filtered his comments through that fact. As a full-time advocate for addressing climate change, though, Gore’s praise of Wal-Mart’s recent announcements of movements towards doing business more sustainably (and I’m definitely qualifying there) transfers a lot of credibility to the company for its efforts. He hasn’t pulled his punches lately, so complimenting the company in this fashion ultimately raises the stakes for Wal-Mart, as their commitments are that much more public now, and they owe one more person of high standing in the environmental community for offering his support. The ENN article I found also quotes Chris Kofinis from Wake Up Wal-Mart on the company’s labor practices, and I’m glad to see that journalists aren’t giving the mega-company a pass on these issues while featuring praise of its movement towards greener practices in operations and procurement.

At this point, I’m truly intrigued by Wal-Mart. No matter how much I want to shake my finger and mention past sins, I’ve got to give them credit for so openly promising to take very concrete steps in a specified time frame. We can’t give the company a pass on issues of worker pay, benefits and treatment because they’re making big moves on environmental practices, but they’re big thinking on sustainability gives me just a bit of hope that some of these other issues will be addressed. As I and others have said before, these moves will send big ripples throughout the retail world. Reader Brian Green has been critical of my (and others’) singling out Wal-Mart, but I think we’ve got to — as the world’s biggest retailer, they’ll set the agenda one way or the other. If Wal-Mart “wakes up,” that gives activists incredible leverage with other retailers.

On a side note, I haven’t communicated with anyone from or representing the company in a while — has anyone heard about their decision on selling Bom Dia Fair Trade coffee in all of their stores? I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

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