The evolution of Wal-Mart’s CFL program

The Times took a deeper look recently at Wal-Mart’s lightbulb push, providing a fascinating glimpse of just what it means when the world’s largest retailer applies its heft to an environmental issue.

Before getting into the particulars, though, a digression. Wal-Mart provokes a passionate response in a lot of our readers, and some wonder why we write about the company at all, particularly in what could be perceived as a positive light. The answer is simple: what Wal-Mart does matters. A lot. The company practically defines the mainstream. Wal-mart’s size and reach give its actions a weight that few other organizations, public or private, can match.

We aren’t the only environmental group to have noticed this. Grist named Wal-Mart as the #2 green story of 2006.

Just today I was talking to a TerraPass member who works for a major consumer goods company. This person mentioned that Wal-Mart is readying a sustainability survey that it plans to administer to all 60,000 of its suppliers. The survey will reportedly grade suppliers on a variety of metrics, including whether they use clean power and recycled content to produce their products. A good score on the survey can lead to improved shelf space. A bad score could result in a product getting dropped altogether. This is all part of Wal-Mart’s announced plan to have zero-waste stores.

Again, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of this sort of thing. As this TerraPass customer said, “Virtually every business in America has to deal with Wal-Mart.” The company is telling suppliers that they have to green their businesses or else potentially lose access to their most important retail channel. You can bet that suppliers are going to listen.

That’s why we write about this. Love Wal-Mart or hate it, this is a big story.

OK, back to the article. The strong arm tactics may sound familiar. What’s new is the end to which they’re being put:

Wal-Mart publicly embraced the bulbs with the zealotry of a convert. In meetings with suppliers, buyers for the chain laid out their plans: lower prices, expanding the shelf space dedicated to them and heavily promoting the technology.

Light-bulb manufacturers, who sell millions of incandescent lights at Wal-Mart, immediately expressed reservations. In a December 2005 meeting with executives from General Electric, Wal-Mart’s largest bulb supplier, “the message from G.E. was, ‘Don’t go too fast. We have all these plants that produce traditional bulbs,’ ” said one person involved with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an agreement not to speak publicly about the negotiations.

The response from the Wal-Mart buyer was blunt, this person said. “We are going there,” the buyer said. “You decide if you are coming with us.”

In the end, as Wal-Mart suppliers generally do, the bulb makers decided to come with the company.

Yes, the company being bullied in this case is GE. Now that’s market power.

But, as the article notes, Wal-Mart’s success in the endeavor is not assured. The one party that can’t be bullied, even by the world’s largest retailer, is the one that matters most of all: the consumer. CFLs have been around since the ’70s, and they’ve simply never gained widespread acceptance. We’ll be watching closely to see if 2007 is their year.

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  1. SHARON cARPENTER - January 3, 2007


  2. Mark - January 3, 2007

    When the article refers to the CFL’s “look” in a bad way relative to the incandecent, are they referring to the bulb itself, or the light the bulb produces? Who cares what the bulb itself looks like? And if it’s the light, why couldn’t we come up with a lamp shade that would make the light itself easier to accept?

  3. Barbara Appelbaum - January 3, 2007

    I use LED bulbs in some fixtures. They are relatively expensive, but I think the color is better than CFL’s. I don’t know what the relative costs, energy, and longevity are. Do you have that data?

  4. Scott Kaiser - January 3, 2007

    We have two LED bulbs.
    vs CFL:
    ~$15 vs. ~$2 (PG&E provides CFL rebates)
    8W vs. 25W (power usage, not output)
    80W vs 100W (light output)

    But, the light output is more directional. The light is too weak to use for reading. I believe LEDs are still several years away from being viable as illumination lighting.

    On the other hand, we also used LED christmas tree lights this year, and those worked great (plus, they are much cooler than incandescents, which might help the tree last longer).

  5. Emily - January 3, 2007

    My husband and I literally cut our power bills in half a few years ago when we replaced all our light bulbs with CFLs and installed power strips to eliminate phantom loads from the TV, VCR, DVD player, microwave, stereo, etc. One of my hobbies involves dinking around with neon. Fluorescent bulbs are, in essence, neon tubes that are designed to burn out periodically. The great advantage of neon — which is why it is so popular in advertising — is that the insides of the tubes can be coated with various chemicals to produce any color of light you can imagine. In the years since we began using CFLs, companies have tweaked the phosphor coating on the tubes to produce a light that more closely matches that of incandescent bulbs. Meanwhile, the price of the bulbs has gone down, and more sizes and types have become available. I see no reason why someone would refuse to install CFLs at this point.

  6. kathy - January 3, 2007

    This is so very important to educate Wal mart on being environmentally sound. They are the main stream, even though there are many people that do not support them (I am one) but the majority shop there. We need to hope and wish that it doesn’t stop with the light bulbs (this is simply not enough), that it bleeds over into they way that Wal mart treats it’s people, it’s purchasing choices, and shifts to support more local vendors and farmers!!!!! MOST Imporatantly educating the shoppers. I hope one day ALL of the CEO’s of Wal mart read the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Things We Make by MBDC. Actually everyone should take a read at this book hopefully very soon industry will catch on. Thanks

  7. Jonathan - January 3, 2007

    I use CFLs at my apartment. But I understand why people complain about the bulb shape. They don’t fit easily in many overhead light fixtures that are covered. They often times bleed out of regular lamp fixtures so you are staring at the exposed light. Both of which aggravates my girlfriend to no end. The other major problem is their inability to be used with dimmers.
    Anyways, the Powers that Be could do us all a favor and try to get these wonderful little buggers in the standard incandescent shape.

  8. Priscilla - January 3, 2007

    CFLs do come in dimmable forms as well as compact forms. It’s a matter of looking, try (Energy Federation Incorporated) for a wonderful selection of bulbs for all types of applications. Over a period of a couple of years, I’ve purchased lamps, energy efficient bathroom fan/light combo, plus remodeled my whole kitchen with dimmables, recessed cans, etc. Good service also.

  9. Rose - January 4, 2007

    I agree that it’s great that Walmart is doing this! While it’s true that lots of negative things could be said about Walmart, you can’t deny that they are definitely an industry leader (if not THE industry leader), and it’s great to see them doing something “green”. Maybe that will pave the way for other large retailers to follow suit.

    As for CFLs, I haven’t found a dimmable sort (haven’t looked), but they do have compact designs now that fit anywhere a regular lightbulb would go. My sister complains about the quality of the light, but I have put them side-by-side with an incandescent, and see virtually no difference at all. I’ve now replaced most of the bulbs in my apartment with these, and the only complaint I have at all is the noise. (Not noticeable with just a single bulb, but if you have several together, like in a bathroom, there is a definite buzz.) Also they are dim when you first turn them on, but I’ve come to like this, as it gives your eyes time to adjust! Anyway, I think they’re great, and am encouraging everyone I know to use them.

  10. Pam Hendrix - January 4, 2007

    While I am slowly converting the bulbs in my home to incandescent, I am worried about future disposal of those bulbs. I have heard that they contain mercury and other harmful substances. I think the next step is to lobby WalMart and other retailers to accept used bulbs for proper disposal. It could be similar to the car battery program already in place. You get a credit towards a new bulb for every old one you bring in. I have hosted two Asian exchange students and they are horrified that we just throw our old batteries in the trash. They must separate them out for separate disposal.

  11. Adam Stein - January 4, 2007

    Reportedly Wal-Mart is considering allowing for in-store disposal of the bulbs. I agree this would be a good thing to lobby for.

  12. anon - January 13, 2007

    I have to say that while I do many many things that attempt to save energy the one that always gets me is the conversion of my lights to CF. Honestly, no matter what people say, there are 2 issues that I cannot get past –> the quality of the light is very poor when compared to halogen, and the flicker they produce gives me massive headaches.

    Before you jump down my throat – these are just practical realities. I’ve actually had to check out of a very nice hotels because they switched all their lights to CF in the rooms and I physically get such bad migraines from the flicker it is just unbearable.

    WIthout companies like Walmart making aggressive, environmentally-friendly stands like this the average mainstream lower-income person who shops at these stores would not have exposure to alternatives. While I think this is awesome that Walmart is at least making some strides in the environmental arena, I guess I personally will not adopt the technology until they have truly addressed these issues. So sorry if that negates all the other environmentally-friendly things I do. :-(

    –>looking forward to the next generation of lighting solutions that combines better atmosphere, lack of flicker, and energy-savings.

  13. . - January 14, 2007

    Concerning the last post and the quality issue…

    I too hate most fluorescent lights for the reasons that you gave. However, I find COMPACT fluorescent lights to be totally fine.

    If you get the “soft white” kind, I think the quality of light looks virtually identical to incandescents. There’s no flicker with newer COMPACT fluorescents, unlike the older “cool white” fluorescent tubes used in most offices.

    Perhaps that you haven’t yet seen soft white compact fluorescent lights? They look like a spiral in the shape of an incandescent bulb.

  14. Ann Beckett - January 26, 2007

    A question about potential mercury vapor leakage from CFL’s. I’m someone who became seriously ill for several years from mercury toxicity from dental amalgams when a high nickel content bridge was installed in my mouth. Apparently with saliva as a conductor the little chem and physics lab in one’s mouth converts mercury from amalgam fillings into its gaseous form which is absorbed by gum and other oral tissues. In my case that overwhelmed an already challenged immune system and I was grotesquely sick until having it all carefully removed started me down a road to recovery. We recently switched out all our incandescents for CFL’s and after several weeks I’ve begun to develop the telltale symptoms again. All I read says the mercury in CFL’s is only a problem if there’s breakage, which hasn’t happened here, but I’m beginning to wonder. A level of exposure that wouldn’t bother others does affect me; for instance I can’t eat fish other than salmon or very small (low on the food chain), fish without a reaction within a few hours. It may have been bad judgment on my part to take the chance of having mercury in my environment, but I’m passionate about shrinking our carbon footprint and I decided to trust the assurances about safety. Now I’m wondering. Anybody know anything?

  15. Ed Kirshner - March 19, 2007

    Let’s see. Electric power generation produces about 10 pounds of mercury a year in California. If all those 100,000,000 Wal-Mart CFLs replaced incandescents in the State (that’s not all the incandescents there), it would reduce the mercury produced by at most an ounce or two a year. But all those CFLs would have over half a ton of mercury in them. Who said CFLs reduce mercury?

    A few years ago the EPA estimated that about 90% of the mercury in fluorescents never makes it to the landfills. Lost on the way somewhere.

    One CFL has more than enough mercury in it to contaminate a typical bedroom based on California workplace standards. However, I wonder what those standards should be for infants, toddlers and pregnant women?

    Until the mercury issue can be solved, CFLs should be outlawed in states like Califronia where the mercury balance is significantly negitive.

  16. Anonymous - April 21, 2007

    Before everyone goes out and buys CFLs, how to dispose of them needs to be made very clear to the public. Also, any Wal-Mart that fills its shelves with mostly CFLs should also sponsor a disposal program in its community. If the bulbs are replaced because they have expired rather than been broken, that can, indeed, prevent mercury from escaping into the land and air; if, however, people simply toss them into the trash where they can be crushed or incinerated, it only makes sense that we are looking at a greater pollution problem rather than a reduction.

  17. Todd in Cali - October 2, 2007

    I hate CFL bulbs. Yuk. The light from them is truly hideous. Give me a clear or color corrected incandescent bulb ANYTIME.
    CA has been pushing these to businesses for a while now. I loath them. I will not sit in a restaurant that has them. Yes I’m a snob.
    I’m not saying I don’t have any, I think there’s like one in our three bedroom house. But no way am I putting CFL bulbs in any of the other fixtures. They’re maybe ok for the kitchen, if you like the crappy light making your cooking experience grotesque. Or maybe the garage. Or attic.
    Just use the right size bulb for your needs, and/or stick your bulbs on dimmers. Have some class AND save energy, AND make your place nice.
    CFL light is proven to induce eye strain, the light doesn’t cast shadows the same way natural or incandescent light does. And I am unconvinced the crap IN CFL’s is all that great once it leaches back into the environment.
    Wal-Mart : I don’t shop there. Knowing they’re pushing CFL’s on the sheep does not impress me. Yet another reason I don’t shop at Wal-Mart.

  18. Anonymous - October 26, 2007

    As a Hardware and Paint department manager for a Wal-Mart, I can tell you that the company is gun-ho about CFL bulbs and promoting the education of the public– and to correct an above assumption– YES Jonathan, GE does make a DIMMABLE CFL- it costs more, but it exists and in different wattages. Also, most of the bulbs come in two styles, a covered “regular look” like the incandescents, and the simple coils. Why pay more to cover the coil. If you want more light you can also buy high wattage CFL because even in a 150wt CFL you are only using 42WT! Most fixtures are set to be 60 or lower– now thats a new light–or rather A LOT of light on the subject.

  19. Thomas - May 30, 2009

    Yes, WalMart seems to have the biggest selection and best prices on a wide variety of CFLs. They have a whole huge section of these bulbs. I bought a bunch of them from them! They are really doing us a favor. Thanks