Edward Humes: Wal-Mart; Force of Nature or Greenwashing? (5/16/11)
Wal-Mart: Force of Nature or Greenwashing?
Edward Humes, Author, Force of Nature
Greg Dalton, Vice President of Special Projects, The Commonwealth Club; Founder, Climate One - Moderator
Wal-Mart is not a sustainable company, says author Edward Humes. But the mega-retailer is making money by investing in sustainability. The story of how Wal-Mart made the pivot toward green is well told by Humes, author of Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution. The unlikely hero is Jib Ellison, an elite river guide-turned sustainability consultant. Through connections, Ellison wrangled a meeting with then-Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott. Ellison’s message for Scott: Wal-Mart’s practices are riddled with waste and it’s costing you money. The retort: Prove it. A series of early successes won over Scott and, it’s not a stretch to say, changed the direction of the company. Wal-Mart added auxiliary generators to its 7,000-truck fleet. Fuel savings netted the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Next, someone suggested that a toymaker reduce the size of the box holding a toy truck. One year, and 497 avoided shipping containers later, Wal-Mart had saved $2.5 million on fuel and materials. “That was an early proof of concept that doing something that was lowering the footprint and more sustainable – baby steps, obviously – had a big return,” he says. Executives now asked, “‘What if we go across all of our products and start looking for those kinds of opportunities,’” says Humes. “And it began to snowball. It stopped being a hippy proposition that some river guide came up with, and started being more of a no-brainer business proposition.” When Climate One’s Greg Dalton asks the inevitable question about greenwashing, Humes is ready. “It sounds like we’re up here singing Wal-Mart’s praises.” But, he goes on, “this isn’t a chorus of ‘Wal-Mart is fabulous.’ It’s a very specific change in the way they’ve decided to do business, which is to try and be more sustainable because it makes economic sense to do so.” Humes credits Lee Scott and Wal-Mart for giving peers cover to follow their lead. “They made it safe for other companies to have the same conversation about sustainability because they’ve shown maybe it’s not so crazy and risky after all. I think they are a large reason why sustainability is even a word that big businesses talk about.” For Humes, the stakes are too high to quibble over Wal-Mart’s motivations. “I think they’ve been pretty careful about saying, ‘We’re not a green company.’ They never will be a green company. They’re an out-sourced, big-box retailer that wants you to buy ever-more amounts of stuff,” he says. But “if you’re driving 60 miles-an-hour towards oblivion and slow the car down to 20 miles-an-hour, is that a good thing? I think it is.”
This program was recorded in front of a live audience at the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco on May 16th, 2011