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Walmart is Leading the Green Charge in China: One Factory at a Time

RP Siegel | Wednesday December 15th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Everything is connected, although sometimes the connections are as complicated as a Rube Goldberg contraption. So it is with the connection between people who care about the future of the planet and a growing number of Chinese factories, compliments of Walmart.

Walmart went to China for lower prices. China is growing like gangbusters because so many companies are coming to them. China is putting economic growth ahead of sustainability, which is worrisome to those who recognize the danger. But here in the US, even though our government representatives and the companies who now own them are too busy feeding at the trough to look up and notice the looming problems, the people know there is a problem. At least some of us do. Enough to convince Walmart management that facing up to the problem is a good idea for lots of reasons, including keeping us as customers. But now that Walmart is buying most of its stuff from China, our concern about sustainability, as reflected in their commitments, is one of the few things that is actually being exported from the US to China these days.

Specifically, Walmart set a goal in 2008 to make their top 200 factories 20% more energy efficient by 2012. This was applauded by a number of organizations, including some skeptical ones, at the time. But setting goals is one thing, achieving them is something else entirely. In order to get these plants on a path to energy efficiency, Walmart called in the folks from the Environmental Defense Fund. They had lots of experience in this area and had worked with Walmart before. In a way, their role as third party enforcers, put them in a potentially difficult position as a bad cop from across the pond.

Sometimes, according to Andrew Hutson, the project manager for corporate partnerships at EDF, the initial meetings would be challenging. But once the plant managers came to understand that this would save them money, “The conversation quickly changes to how we can get this done.”

Because the factories produce such a wide variety of different goods, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But because the general practices used when the plants were built were not terribly concerned about energy efficiency, much as they were here in the US until recently, they offer lots of room for improvement.

Indeed, Hutson says, that if the company were to really ramp up its efforts, they could achieve a lot more. “We’ve been uncovering opportunities of 40% to 60% energy savings in factories.” And if Walmart were to expand the program from 200 to 500 or even 1000 factories, “The reduction opportunities are huge.” Even that would only be scratching the surface of the 30,000 factories in China that supply Walmart today.

As an example, an industrial engineer working with EDF audited a toy factory, and found outdated and inefficient motors driving their injection molding machines. Replacing those motors alone, resulted in a 48% energy reduction for the entire factory.

In another factory, they found air compressors, lights, the heating and cooling systems, as well as injection molders that were obsolete and inefficient They were able to cut energy use by 40% there, “without trying all that hard.”

Most of the projects break even in two years or less, some in as little as six months. And if that wasn’t motivation enough, last year the Chinese government set a goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45% by the year 2020. When combined with Walmart’s goal of reducing 20% by 2012, factory owners are finding themselves “caught between the chopsticks.”

Back home, it’s not exactly clear what we’re waiting for. Perhaps we’ll need to wait for a team of Chinese engineers to come over here and show us how to save energy.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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