Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wal-Mart, the Green Giant?

In the midst of processing the thoughts I shared last week about the impact of our lifestyle on our environment, a book at the library caught my attention. Force of Nature by Edward Humes traces the changes within Wal-Mart over the past several years, changes that Humes describes as a green revolution. A quite unlikely story indeed!

I have not been a fan of Wal-mart for a long time for a number of reasons. They treat their employees poorly. Their drive to sell at the lowest price leads them to sell poor-quality merchandise and at the same time drives other retailers from any market they enter. This same drive for the lowest price has also led to them purchasing from the lowest-cost supplier without much regard for the impact on the society and environment in the place of production. My list could go on, but you get the idea. I also simply don't really like the atmosphere in a Wal-mart store. I much prefer the atmosphere at Target, though the stores are quite similar in many ways. I will acknowledge that I do at times shop at Wal-mart. Sometimes I cannot find what I'm looking for at Target and Wal-mart is a convenient place to shop for some things, such as for the box of paperclips I needed yesterday.

With this perspective I found it amazing, even inconceivable to think that Wal-mart might somehow undergo a green revolution, much less that it might become a leading force in promoting environmental awareness, responsibility and sustainability. But in this book Humes documents precisely how and why this is happening. Through the influence of an environmentally-minded consultant named Jib Ellison, Wal-mart's executives became convinced that it was in their best business interest to make changes that positively affected the environment. They didn't make this decision primarily out of a sense of corporate responsibility or social awareness. They did it because they understood that paying attention to the environmental impact of their entire business, from the production and supply-chain to the final sale, could positively affect the corporation's bottom line. Good environmental stewardship makes good  (and profitable) business sense. As one consultant emphasized to them repeatedly: carbon=money. Cut the carbon, save money. 

Humes doesn't argue that Wal-mart is suddenly the greatest company in the world, or that everything about their business should be emulated. He criticizes many of their practices even now. But he recognizes and emphasizes the profound impact that a company the size of Wal-mart has when it decides to change its approach to business and embrace greater environmental responsibility as part of its core business model. The knock-on effect is amazing. For example, when Wal-mart decided to start buying more organic cotton, suddenly the market for organic cotton broadened such that thousands more acres were planted and harvested organically, because Wal-mart created demand for it. When Wal-mart realized that packaging products in smaller containers could save on shipping and production costs, suddenly whole industries were compelled to follow suit. If they didn't, they wouldn't be selling at Wal-mart anymore, and few companies want to be shut out of that market.

This book excites me. It offers hope that businesses can change and we can begin to interact with our world in a healthier, more sustainable way. It also challenged me to think more about my own lifestyle. Where can I make further changes that will reduce my impact on the world around me and allow me to live in a sustainable manner, sustainable for me, for my children, for their children and for the rest of the people on this planet.? I've only begun to reflect on this question. Last Friday I shared a few small steps I've made, but I hope that they will prove to be only the beginning.

Nonetheless, all the changes Wal-mart has made and all the positive impact these changes have had do not solve the fundamental issue. “Can Wal-Mart be sustainable?”asks Hume in the epilogue. “Can the biggest retailer in the world—can any large, mainstream business in this outsourced consumer economy—be green? The simple, accurate answer is no.” The answer is no because no matter how much we remove waste from the production, distribution and sale of products, no matter how much we shift to producing things in a more environmentally-friendly manner, we cannot sustain an economy that thrives on selling people things they do not need. Planned obsolescence is not sustainable. But making long-lasting quality products in an environmentally-responsible manner isn't going to provide the continued demand that produces the growth and profits that Wal-mart and their shareholders demand. So our current economic structure is fundamentally flawed and unsustainable. 

“As American shoppers said hello to Wal-Mart a half century ago, they said farewell to a society of less  stuff, of products built in America and built to last, of saving instead of spending, of postponing purchases rather than borrowing for them, of knowing your customers personally rather than surveying their demographics.”

Ultimately Wal-mart is not solely responsible for our unsustainable lifestyles. We are. Sure, their sales approach and business model fuel the fire, but we are the ones supplying the demand. We are also often the shareholders demanding a profitable return on our investment. We can choose to live differently. We can choose to buy less and pay greater attention to the impact of our purchases, both locally and halfway around the world in the place they are produced. But are we willing to make the changes necessary to live sustainably? Am I?

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