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Environmentalism, fitness, and healthy lifestyles once seemed a luxury that only the upper middle class could afford. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and employer of 1.3 million people who earn an average of less than $20,000 per year, aims to change that with its voluntary personal sustainability project.IBM, Microsoft, and other white-collar companies sponsor fitness and lifestyle improvement programs as perks for their middle class employees. Wal-Mart’s $30 million program is the first of its kind because it extends lifestyle and environmental improvements to working-class people who typically live paycheck to paycheck and frequently eat fast food.

About 50% of Wal-Mart’s employees have opted to participate in the program. The retailer hosts workshops to teach employees the benefits of carpooling to work, discontinuing cigarette smoking, and turning off the television. Employees also are learning the importance of embracing environmental sustainability, reducing carbon emissions, and consuming healthier and more environmentally friendly food.

In turn, these seminars have prompted employees to take the initiative and tailor environmentally conscious practices that fit their lifestyles. Employees have pledged to start recycling at home and improve their physical health through better food and more exercise. One employee even created a “zero waste” break room, demanding colleagues use mugs instead of Styrofoam cups and providing recycling bins for aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Employees are also lobbying for Subway restaurants in Wal-Mart stores instead of McDonald’s.

What was first thought to be a public relations stunt is turning into a positive lifestyle project that can increase the quality of life for employees, improve productivity, reduce health care costs, improve the retailer’s image among customers, and make it a leader in the environmental movement.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you think Wal-Mart’s project will be sustainable over time?

Michael Barbaro, “At Wal-Mart, Lessons in Self-Help,” The New York Times, April 05, 2007.