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Can you still hate Wal-Mart?

Sometimes you just have to let the possibility breathe.

Sometimes you just have to allow that something grand and good and healthy might actually be born from the bowels of the dank and ravenous megacorporate world, like flowers from a dung heap, like vodka from old potatoes, even if it comes right alongside the nastiest, most abusive federal environmental policy you will see in your lifetime.

Take Wal-Mart, the most famously offensive, town-destroying, junk-purveying, labor-abusing, sweatshop-supporting, American-job-killing, soul-numbing, seizure-inducing, hope-curdling retailer in the known universe (just ask the fine local town of Hercules), moving upward of $300 billion in cheap mass-produced slurm every year via nearly 5,000 landscape-mauling eyesore stores stretching all the way from Texas to China and Argentina and South Korea and Mexico and your backyard, with U.S. stores accounting for fully 8 percent of all retail sales in our entire nation.

There has been, to date, very little good to say about this most voracious and powerful of low-end, trashy retailers, and certainly nothing from anyone even remotely concerned with the health of the planet and of the attuned consumers who inhabit it. Wal-Mart has always been, quite appropriately, the devil.

Until now. As juicy and warmhearted eco-blog Treehugger mentions in its latest Wal-Mart roundup (and as the New York Times later discussed in its huge "Business of Green" section last week), it seems that back in October, Wal-Mart's president, Lee Scott, delivered a "secret" speech to employees about "21st Century Leadership," in which he outlined a whole slew of what can only be called truly remarkable and potentially world-altering agenda items to help ensure the future health of the world's biggest shopping hell.

And what a speech it was. Packed with all sorts of pledges and goals of such a green and sustainable and forward-thinking nature it might as well have been floating on boats of tofu on waves of Sierra Club blown by winds of Utne Reader. It was, in a word, surreal. And if even half of it is true, more than a little revolutionary.

There was talk of stores eventually being supplied with 100-percent renewable energy. Talk of ultimately creating zero waste, of pledging to reduce packaging materials across the board and create more recyclables and replace PVC packaging in all Wal-Mart branded items with more eco-friendly materials. And when you're talking megatons of plastic, that's saying a lot.

It gets better. Wal-Mart has already committed to selling 100-percent sustainable fish in its food markets. They are already experimenting with green roofs, corn-based plastics and green energy (which is now used to power four Canadian stores, for a total of 39,000 megawatts, amounting to what some estimate is the single biggest purchase of renewable energy in Canadian history). Is this remarkable? Groundbreaking? Utterly confounding? Well, yes and no.

Like any giant company suddenly "embracing" the green initiative (hi, GM and Ford), Wal-Mart's rationale for all of this, of course, has absolutely zero to do with any sort of deep concern for the planet (though it does make for good PR), nothing at all about actual humanitarian beliefs or honest emotion or spiritual reverence, and has absolutely everything to do with the corporation's rabid manifesto: cost-cutting and profit.

The reason Scott promised that Wal-Mart will double the fuel efficiency of their huge truck fleet within a decade? Not to save the air, but to save $300 million in fuel costs per year. The reason they aim to increase store efficiency and reduce greenhouse gasses by 20 percent across all stores worldwide? To save money in heating and electrical bills, and also to help lessen the impact of global warming, which is indirectly causing more violent weather, which in turn endangers production and delivery and Wal-Mart's ability to, well, sell more crap. Ah, capitalism.

Seems Wal-Mart has realized one vital maxim that so many fundamentalist right-wing capitalist GOPers have so far failed to grasp: The apocalypse is just really bad for business.

Consider, furthermore, that Wal-Mart is perhaps one of the most conservative and brutishly arrogant, town-crushingly invasive of red-state companies, donating upward of $2 million to the GOP last year alone. This makes it even more remarkable indeed that Scott "gets" the global-warming crisis in a way not even BushCo is willing to admit. Yet.

"We are looking at innovative ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This used to be controversial, but the science is in and it is overwhelming. Climate change doesn't cause hurricanes, but hot ocean water makes them more powerful. Climate change doesn't cause rainfall, but it can increase the frequency and severity of heavy flooding. Climate change doesn't cause droughts, but it makes droughts longer. We believe every company has a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as it can."

That's what he actually said. This might not sound like much, and it's completely obvious to anyone who's been paying any sort of attention for the past, oh, 20 years, but might as well be Greek when spoken by a major Republican corporate exec, and might as well be complete vile hellspawn gibberish to a BushCo politician. It is -- or it has been, for endless years -- a blasphemy of the highest order, given how it was always deemed too expensive, too unfeasible for a company to care about pesky things such as the health of the planet. Not anymore.

All this on top of word that Wal-Mart is readying a huge move into organic foods (as I mentioned in a previous column), which is the mixed blessing to end all mixed blessings, given how it will immediately eliminate antibiotics, chemical fertilizers and hormones in tons of mass-produced foods, but also, given pathetic and diluted USDA regulations, will mean the other two vital parts of the organic movement -- ideas of sustainability and of supporting local producers -- are completely trashed.

So there you go. It's the bizarre and surprising case of the greening of Wal-Mart, and it's far from perfect. But there can be no denying it's a start, and a shockingly significant one. Because here's the kicker: As goes Wal-Mart, so goes an enormous chunk of the retail and manufacturing sectors. Like a whale through a krill swarm, their massive girth paves the way.

I do not shop at Wal-Mart. I may never, ever shop at Wal-Mart, given their notoriously horrible labor practices and their brutal business tactics and their effortless murder of all love and hope and joy from the retail experience. They are the George Bushes of the retail world -- drunk with power, cheaply made and full of crap. Not to mention that vaguely nauseating feeling, when you walk through their (or almost any) big-box store, that your soul is being slowly coated in rat saliva.

No matter. They may not have any more heart, they may be doing it for less than luminous reasons -- but who cares? If evil Wal-Mart can go green, anyone can. Isn't that good news? I mean, sort of?

Mark Morford's column appears Wednesdays and Fridays in Datebook and on sfgate.com. Mark also contributes to the hot, spankin' SF Gate Culture Blog. E-mail to: [email protected].

© 2006 SF Gate

Editorial Notes: Also posted at Common Dreams. (UPDATE) Related: Save the Planet, But Not Too Much of It (The Nation) -BA

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