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Bulb brilliance at Wal-Mart as CFLs go mainstream

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread approval of the energy-efficient light bulbs is price, and the big-box company is working on that.

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While governments in Australia and Britain are mandating a changeover to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), the United States appears to be doing it free-market style. Wal-Mart just announced it will sell its own low-cost house brand of CFL lights, while also trumpeting that it had already reached its goal of selling 100 million of the swirly, energy-efficient bulbs this year.

But that's just the beginning: From laundry detergent to DVDs, toothpaste to vacuum cleaners, the world's biggest retailer seems committed to "going green" product by product. In the process, it's beginning to reverse some of the bad publicity it has received over selling cheap goods from China and allegations of labor abuses.

It's won plaudits from global-warming activist Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton, who invited Wal-Mart's CEO to the high-profile Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York last week. The speculation now centers on whether Wal-Mart's massive buying influence on suppliers will spread the fight against global warming beyond the granola-crunching set to the minivan masses.

Environmental groups are expressing cautious optimism, according to a story in BusinessWeek. Many remain suspicious that the move is no more than a public-relations ploy. But even the "greenest of the greens," the article reports, concede that with $350 billion in yearly sales, Wal-Mart has the potential to change the marketplace. But will it be willing to cut off suppliers that refuse to cooperate? That remains to be seen.

Says Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace:

"Wal-Mart has the power to coax suppliers into changing. They're taking on a daunting task, which is pretty cool."

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