The idea of greener Wal-Mart would have been inconceivable a few years ago — laughable, even. Yet now the likes of Jeffrey Hollender, cofounder of the green home products company Seventh Generation, for years a vocal Wal-Mart critic, says, "Wal-Mart has become a legitimate sustainability leader… Wal-Mart's enormous size and influence holds the potential to create the tipping poin t the corporate responsibility movement has been waiting for." In short, the company once derided as the "bully of Bentonville" is serious about green, having concluded that the clean, green and least wasteful way of doing business is also the most profitable way of doing business. And what works for the world's biggest company can work for anyone.

So here are ten lessons from Wal-Mart's journey to the green side, five that apply to anyone, five aimed specifically at businesses.

FOR EVERYONE: Carbon = Energy = Money
Forget all that scary stuff you've heard from politicians about how cutting carbon emissions to stem climate change will kill jobs and destroy American business. Wal-Mart says that's crazy talk. Greening your home or business makes your richer. How? Carbon comes from using energy. Energy costs money. Which means cutting carbon saves the planet and saves you money. So do what Wal-Mart does: use energy-efficient lighting. Plant shady trees near your house or business. Insulate your attic and, if you have a flat roof, paint it white. Clean the filters in your refrigerator, heater and AC. Small businesses who follow Wal-Mart's advice have had their energy bills drop 20 to 60 percent by taking just those steps.

Waste = Money
If Wal-Mart stores in California can cut their waste by 81%, anything's possible. So cut out the disposable water bottles and use the tap and a glass. Make your own coffee instead of all those disposable latte cups. Consider bulk foods (they're cheaper) and products with a longer shelf life such as organic milk, because a shocking third of our food ends up spoiled and in the trash. Compost. Recycle. Donate. Wal-Mart does all of this — and makes a cool $100 million a year from stuff it used to pay to have hauled to the landfill.

Make Sustainability About Health
Let's be honest: we all say we want to be greener, but when it comes to voting with our time and our wallets, not so much. So when Wal-Mart wants to sell green, it emphasizes how sustainable choices are often healthy choices: organic baby food and clothes, for instance, are pesticide free and therefore healthier for babies. And that does influence consumer behavior. So start out focusing on health: walking instead of driving short distances on errands, eating fresh local produce, steering clear of cigarettes and other toxic products. These are all healthy choices — and the green, lower-cost, sustainable choices, too.

Start With Quick Wins
Wal-Mart learned the only way to make sustainability take hold was with quick, sure-fire victories that galvanize the troops. Wal-Mart caught sustainability fever by reducing the packaging on a single toy — and finding it simultaneously saved a forest and $2.5 million. What can a smaller business or household do? Switching out light bulbs will garner visible savings, as will washing in cold water. Or plant a vegetable garden nurtured with your own compost — the single most sustainable thing anyone can do.

Listen To The Kids
Wal-Mart is adopting sustainable business practices for two reasons: The first is because, right now, sustainability boosts profits. The second reason has to do with the customers of tomorrow — our kids. Today's Wal-Mart shoppers are not particularly motivated to buy green. But their kids are, and Wal-Mart is listening. Wal-Mart is betting that the most planet-friendly retailer will win the future. So if you don't want to spend your senior years trying to explain to your grandkids why you didn't do more to save the planet, it's time to get busy.

FOR BUSINESSES: Sustainability Starts At The Top
Big businesses have often foisted off sustainability to a mid-level executive, which has been the kiss of death and the path to greenwash. No matter the size of the company, CEOs have to make sustainability their priority — and make their direct reports do the same. No one else can.

Everything Is Fair Game
Starting at the top is critical, but for a top-down sustainability mandate to succeed, it must "infect" thinking throughout a business. It can't be the job of a separate sustainability team, but rather, the consideration of every department and line worker, from buyers to truck drivers to warehouse foremen. Wal-Mart's experience shows that's where many of the insights on how to be more efficient, cleaner and greener will be found.

Race To The Top, Not The Bottom
Old thinking about the environment perceives it as a costly regulatory compliance act, keeping the company at the point where emissions, waste, toxics and sprawl are legal — a race to the bottom. New thinking about the environment perceives it as an opportunity to use sustainability for competitive advantage, a tool to make a business leaner, cleaner, and less wasteful, beyond anything that regulations require — a race to the top.

Burst The Bubble, Embrace The Critics
Secretive, insular Wal-Mart decided to throw open its doors to critics, inviting environmentalists and activists inside the infamous "Bentonville Bubble" to advise the retailer on everything from sustainable fisheries to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Environmental groups had the expertise and the data on sustainability for years, but couldn't get anyone in the big business world to listen; when Wal-Mart opened up, organizations like the Environment Defense Fund, Conservation International and the Natural Resources Defense Council were happy to lend their expertise for free.

Don't Wait For The Market – Lead It
By the time there's big consumer demand for sustainability, it will too late to start (think iPad versus all the me-too competitors that came a year later). Wal-Mart decided to get out in front of consumer demand on sustainability and found that it served the bottom line anyway – it pays to be green. But today's sustainability efforts mean the company will be ready when consumer demand does catch up. If Wal-Mart is right about the coming Generation Green, the biggest business risk now isn't acting to become more sustainable; the risk is failing to act.

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