Environmentalists find an unlikely new hero: Wal-Mart

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It sounds an unlikely scenario: a couple of prominent Hollywood liberals honouring Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and much-criticised corporate bogeyman, for its contributions to the environment.

And yet that is what transpired on Monday. Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's chief executive, found himself fêted at a dinner reception at New York's Rockefeller Plaza courtesy of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who called him "a great role model for those of us who care about the environment".

The Eagles were on hand to play a live set and other notables present included Ron Perelman, the billionaire chairman of Revlon, and Charlie Rose, a prominent television interviewer.

It was left to others to sound cynical, or appalled. Variety, the entertainment industry newspaper, said the award was a "no-brainer" that had little to do with the environment and everything to do with the fact that Wal-Mart generated 40 per cent of all DVD sales within the US.

The Weinstein Company - the new enterprise the brothers founded after they sold their original venture, Miramax, to Disney - is thinking of generating a line of straight-to-video family films targeted, Variety noted, "right at the heart of Wal-Mart's demographic".

And the Eagles are believed to be negotiating a deal to give Wal-Mart exclusive distribution and marketing rights to its future records.

A small group of protesters stood outside Rockefeller Plaza to register a laundry-list of complaints about Wal-Mart - everything from its employment and salary practices to its political contributions to Republican candidates.

The union-backed advocacy group WakeUpWalMart.com sent a letter to the Weinstein brothers, who are prominent Democrats, urging them not to "greenwash a record of exploitation that is a national disgrace".

For many years, environmentalists attacked Wal-Mart for devastating urban centres and creating sprawl with their suburban superstores. Government regulators have fined the company millions of dollars over the years for air and water pollution violations.

Last November, however, Mr Scott - fighting for the company's reputation and share price as much as its bona fides as a responsible corporate citizen - launched a series of green initiatives aimed at cutting energy use at Wal-Mart stores by 30 per cent over three years, improving the fuel efficiency of the company's fleet of cars and trucks, pressuring suppliers to use less packaging and stepping up its bag recycling programme.

The initiatives grabbed the attention of Al Gore, the former vice-president turned global warming guru, who addressed a company gathering in the summer, noting that a company of Wal-Mart's size could have an enormous impact on the battle to halt greenhouse gas emissions and save energy.

Fortune magazine, meanwhile, put Mr Scott on its cover in August with the headline: "Wal-Mart Saves The Planet".

WakeUpWalMart.com, which admittedly sets itself the task of never liking anything the company does, is dismissive of Wal-Mart's environmental record to date, accusing the company of making lavish promises without setting clear deadlines for meeting its targets.

It has sounded the alarm over the company's plans to distribute candidate information to its 1.3 million employees ahead of next month's midterm elections - plans that the advocacy group say shows Wal-Mart declaring war on the Democratic Party. (Wal-Mart denies it has any partisan intent.) Part of the Weinstein brothers' motivation in honouring Mr Scott might be to suggest ways of cutting down on the packaging of CDs and DVDs - an interest that might now bind them both. Variety, however, pointed out acidly that there was already a solution to that problem: "It's called downloads."

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