The list of Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT ) shortcomings is vast, and I won't be disputing any of them today. Instead, I'm offering up three Wal-Mart initiatives that actually do some good for society. Whether they are enough to mitigate the company's reputation in any meaningful way remains up to the individual, of course, but these are important efforts and worth some acknowledgment.
1. On-site green power generation
Wal-Mart ranks first among U.S. companies for on-site green power generation. While Intel (NASDAQ: INTC ) lays claim to impressive statistics like "100% green power use", it achieves that percentage primarily by buying renewable energy credits. Wal-Mart has 180 renewable energy projects around the world, including more than 150 solar installations and 26 fuel cell projects. The company's goal for 2013 is to bring solar power to 100 more store sites. Solar City (NASDAQ: SCTY ) does the bulk of the Wal-Mart's installations, if investors are interested in that angle.
Wal-Mart is currently testing several other renewable initiatives, including large-scale wind projects, micro-wind projects, and solar water heating.
Make no mistake, Wal-Mart is doing this to save on energy costs, but the money that the company is plowing into renewables spurs innovation and will bring the costs of these technologies down for all of us.
2. Building efficiency
It costs $400 billion every year to power America's commercial buildings and manufacturing centers. It's no surprise then, that electricity costs are the second-highest operating expense at most Wal-Mart locations. Energy is not only expensive, but power generation is extremely dirty, accounting for more than 33% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. So, what is Wal-Mart doing to cut costs and lower its carbon footprint?
First, it's converting as much lighting as possible to LED. The company first made the move to LED in 2005 when it teamed up with General Electric (NYSE: GE ) to outfit its freezers in a Texas store. Upon discovering the new lights cut energy consumption there by 70%, Wal-Mart decided to implement the changes companywide. From there, its taken LED savings to the next level, and the lights now appear on the sales floor and out in the parking lots.
Remember that as a building becomes more efficient, the rooftop solar panels can account for a greater percentage of the store's power.
3. Zero waste
I laughed when I read Wal-Mart was trying to move to a zero-waste model. Laughed, Fools. A little cynicism goes a long way sometimes, but while I was laughing Wal-Mart was discovering a new revenue stream. By ramping up recycling efforts, donating food to local food banks, and recovering cooking oil, the company has reduced waste by 80% at its U.S. operations. In 2011, that was good for an extra $231 million. Who's laughing now?
Zero waste is not only possible for Wal-Mart, but many other companies in other industries as well. MillerCoors -- the MolsonCoors (NYSE: TAP ) and SABMiller joint venture -- has four U.S. breweries that are now landfill-free, meaning the company sends zero waste to landfills. It's flagship Golden, Colo., brewery used to send 135 tons of garbage to a landfill every month, but no more!
If a brewery can do it, Wal-Mart can do it. And so can all your other investments.
Wal-Mart comes up short in a lot of ways, but energy and environmental progressivism isn't one of them. This article needn't change your opinion of the company, but it should make you think about what sort of energy initiatives are possible at your own investments.
Wal-Mart's energy policies are pretty progressive, but as the retail paradigm continues to shift, only those most forward-looking and capable companies will survive. As an investor, make sure you know who they are. Check out the Fool's free report on the 3 Companies Ready to Rule Retail.