Greening or Greenwashing at Wal-Mart?

I've been a member of the Sierra Club for more than 10 years now and I have friends who work for Wal-Mart here in the Bay Area, so it was with more than just a passing interest that I read the story in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle Magazine: "Werbach at Wal-Mart? Ex-Sierra Club head Adam Werbach is busy "greening" Wal-Mart. Some former friends and colleagues say it's rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but is it possible he's onto something?"

I think its great that Wal-Mart is trying to reduce its carbon footprint, I'm pretty sure that their main motivation is to cut costs, ie increase profits. In fact, that's how Andy Ruben, Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Sustainability at Wal-Mart, summed up Wal-Mart's environmental policy in an interview back in October 2005:
We found that environment, looking at these things, it's good for business. Looking at things in a new way can help us in terms of reducing energy where we pay for the pollution that goes on in some way, and our customers do. Reducing waste, then we pay twice for.

So, let me give you an example. One brand of toys we sell, a private brand, Kid Connection. Just by reducing the packaging size, we're able to save $2.4 million in that one product line annually in transportation. It equates to about 3,100 trees that are never harvested and about a thousand barrels oil. Some people are going to be motivated purely by the benefits, some people will be motivated by the cost savings. And I think that's okay. I think what's important is that, you know, we take advantage of the opportunities of the company we have.
While I'm sure Werbach believes that he's doing good by helping the world's largest corporation cut its energy use and materials consumption, I can't believe he doesn't see why they chose him. Werbach is a former President of the Sierra Club and had been a vocal critic of Wal-Mart. Who better to co-opt and get on the Wal-Mart payroll?

Ruben claims he wasn't familiar with Werbach's criticism before he hired Werbach -- which I find patently ridiculous.
I asked Ruben if he'd been aware of all the derogatory things Werbach had said and written about Wal-Mart. "No, I really wasn't, I knew very little about that background," he said. "But, truthfully, it didn't matter. All I care about is getting the right people who can help us now. I had read his 'Environmentalism is Dead' speech on a plane from Bentonville to Chicago, and then Paul Hawken's book, 'The Ecology of Commerce,' from Chicago to London, and I thought, I've got so much education, and I have no idea of these things, what am I not seeing? And at about the same time Wal-Mart was having a similar wake-up. We realized that the most important business strategy we could be engaged in right now is going for full-time sustainability."
First off, it sounds like Mr Ruben is doing a lot of flying. Maybe he could help advance the cause of sustainability by using web and phone conferencing a bit more? And if he has "so much education," why should I believe he didn't thoroughly vet Werbach before hiring him?

Sorry, Mr Ruben, I think you're lying. And Adam, I'm sorry to see you become a shill. I think your successor at Sierra Clubs hits the target with his remarks about you and Wal-Mart:
"Adam says that Wal-Mart is dedicated to making themselves sustainable, but he means they are in his little realm," says Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club. "The real issue is the supply chain and the business model. How does a powerful business organization like that end up with shelves full of leaded toys from China? They announced a while ago that they were greening their supply chain, but the jury is in, they haven't done it."

So, does this make Werbach a hypocrite? "No," said Pope. "He's just putting his energies into an insignificant part of the problem. What good is it to change the consciousness of the associates if they're selling poisonous toys? Look, I give them points for their energy-saving efforts; it's good business sense to have efficiency, and it's admirable to reduce waste. But the supply chain is the most important issue, the low-price business model. I consider Adam a friend, but what he's doing is frivolous; it's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

8 comments:

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