Green Acre Radio: How Wal-Mart got religion on sustainability

Author Edward Humes talks about his new book on the "unlikely story of Wal-Mart's green revolution."

Author Edward Humes talks about his new book on the "unlikely story of Wal-Mart's green revolution."

Introduction: This week Wal-Mart is the subject on Green Acre Radio. The largest retailer in the world, reviled by many for its take-no-prisoners approach to market domination, has become an improbable trailblazer in the burgeoning field of green business. Green Acre Radio interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes about his just released book, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution How It Could Transform Business and Save The World.

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Narration: With Green Acre Radio this is Martha Baskin. What happens when a renowned river guide teams up with the CEO of one the world’s largest and least Earth-friendly corporations? When it’s former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott and white-water turned sustainability consultant Jib Ellison, the result is an unlikely revolution. In his new book, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal- Mart’s Green Revolution How It Could Transform Business and Save The World, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes tells the story of Wal-Mart’s  massive makeover. It all began in 2005. An internal report showed the company was losing 8 percent of its customers because of its reputation for putting local stores out of business, outsourcing, low wages and even lower wages for women. The company was fishing for good PR. Author Edward Humes, “Fortunately for everyone, particularly Wal-Mart and the environment, the leader of Wal-Mart at the time, Lee Scott, met the river guide, Jib Ellison, who had this message that it really wasn’t about PR, that sustainability was the biggest untapped opportunity for businesses of the 21st century.”

Guided by Jib Ellison’s company Blu Skye, Wal-Mart became a laboratory to test the business case for sustainability. Ellison’s first recommendation was to reduce packaging in a Wal-Mart brand toy truck, “Kids Connection”. “They sell them by the millions, they’re made in China, they’re for toddlers and they shaved a few inches off the package. Such a minor change that customers wouldn’t even notice the difference.” But the difference was huge. “The first thing that happened is 4,000 trees didn’t [get] cut down to make the packaging for these toys.” As for Wal-Mart’s bottom line, 497 fewer cargo containers needed to be shipped from China saving the company a million gallons in fuel. “Two and a half million dollars stays in Wal-Mart's pocket. So when they crunch the numbers they say, hey, why didn’t we see this before?”

The quest for more sustainability measures was on — everything from reduced packaging to zero waste and more efficient trucks in their fleet of 7,000. Sustainabiity was good for profits. It became a competition within the company, says Humes, to find the next Kids Connection toy. Laundry detergent was next. “They told the detergent industry, enough with the jumbo bottles all they have in them compared to the concentrated smaller bottles is more water and more plastic.” Wal-Mart set out to educate consumers. “And they did. they single-handedly drove the industry to more sustainable packaging of detergent, down to the ketchup size bottles.” It will take a few years to catch on but when Wal-Mart demands a smaller bottle for detergent, says Humes, Proctor and Gamble will eventually only make small bottles. “Four hundred million gallons of water conserved. Ninety-five million tons of plastic not used and created from fossil fuels. Incalcuable savings in carbon emissions because of all the smaller bottles that can be fit into a tractor trailer load.”

Humes is the first to admit that a big box retailer like Wal-Mart, can never be truly sustainable, but he was drawn to share their story of deciding to conduct business in a greener fashion. As the largest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart's decisions rock the global supply chain. “For the apparel industry, for the dairy industry, for the electronics. sustainability as a business strategy has the potential for being revolutionary in a way we haven’t seen on the environmental front in a very long time.”

One of the company’s more impressive goals, says Humes, is to remove 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain. A decision that will help them reach this goal, is switching from conventional cotton in children’s clothing to organic. Jib Ellison, the river guide who became Wal-Mart’s sustainability guide, took the company’s lead apparel buyer to two growing operations in Turkey. One was organic. The other conventional. “The organic cotton place was a pleasure. It was beautiful it was like a stroll through the park and the conventional cotton operation was almost unbearable it was so steeped in toxics, pesticide, and herbicide that you could not walk by it without the tears streaming out of your eyes.”

Wal-Mart’s apparel buyer, says Humes, vowed to change the company’s product line. Since then Wal-Mart has become the biggest purveyor of organic cotton products on the planet. While many customers are cash strapped, the company has had success in marketing organic if it only costs a little extra. The book, Force of Nature, won’t convince all Wal-Mart’s critics that it’s now a force for good. But it convincingly shows that Wal-Mart’s green revolution is reaching a demographic that the environmental movement has been unable to reach after decades of effort. In a consumer culture with 200 million weekly customers, that’s no mean feat.

Green Acre Radio is supported by the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. Produced through the Jack Straw Foundation and KBCS.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.