Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Wal-Mart Backs Fluorescents

My love-hate relationship with Wal-Mart continues. It is mostly hate, but an article in the New York Times today illustrates why it isn't always a clear-cut decision. It seems Wal-Mart has gotten religion about climate change and wants to use its market clout to do something about it. And the easiest place to begin is by pushing compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which are far more efficient than the old incandescent bulbs:
A compact fluorescent has clear advantages over the widely used incandescent light — it uses 75 percent less electricity, lasts 10 times longer, produces 450 pounds fewer greenhouse gases from power plants and saves consumers $30 over the life of each bulb.
Wal-Mart has made a huge commitment to get CFLs into American homes. It wants to sell 100 million by 2008. This could make a big impact on energy savings:
If it succeeds in selling 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs a year by 2008, total sales of the bulbs in the United States would increase by 50 percent, saving Americans $3 billion in electricity costs and avoiding the need to build additional power plants for the equivalent of 450,000 new homes.
What's not to like about this plan? Apparently a lot if you are a light-bulb maker. The big guns like GE are not happy about it because if Americans really did start using CFLs they wouldn't buy nearly as many light bulbs and the big companies wouldn't need as much manufacturing space and wouldn't make as much profit.

But it is even more complicated than that because most of the CFLs are made in Asia, whereas many incandescents are still made in the US. So selling more CFLs means losing more American jobs overseas.

CFLs are also not without their own environmental problems. They contain mercury and should not just be tossed in the garbage where they and their mercury end up in landfills and then in our water supply. Wal-Mart is addressing this by working with the government to figure out ways to make it easier to collect and recycle them. They may even allow consumers to drop off their old CFLs at stores.

So what to make of Wal-Mart's efforts? They deserve praise for doing the right thing, and if they succeed in selling as many CFL's as they plan to, it will be good for the environment and good for the country. But there will also be a cost in American jobs lost.

And they still don't pay good wages or provide adequate healthcare for their employees. Shades of grey, shades of grey.

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