Imagine 400 CEOs representing Wal-Mart’s largest vendors all sitting in one room pondering the future of sustainability. Aside from representing trillions of dollars in market value, this group could change the course of history. As I observed from the third row of this gathering on Wednesday at Wal-Mart’s headquarters, I was both excited and scared. Excited that Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott had convened this gathering to throw more weight behind the need to generate innovative “green” products, yet scared that the challenge on the table was too narrowly focused.
After SC Johnson withdrew “Scotchguard” from the market because it was determined to contain toxic chemicals, Wal-Mart helped the manufacturer introduce a safer reformulated product and placed it on thousands of end caps, those special high-visibility displays at the ends of store aisles. When Unilever was concerned that consumers wouldn’t understand its triple concentrated All brand laundry detergent, Wal-Mart helped ensure that their customers couldn’t miss the new product by generously giving it more shelf space than it might have deserved. From compact fluorescent light bulbs to organic pet bedding, Wal-Mart is committed to supporting sustainable consumer products. This is a good, if not a great thing.
Today, Lee Scott announced that the company wanted real innovation in sustainable consumer products, not just incremental improvement. Suddenly, the R&D budgets of consumer products companies got a lot greener.
Scott also proclaimed at various points in his talk that, “Sustainability is one of the most interesting things we’ve done. Sustainability is here to stay. We lay no claim to being a green company. We’re just graduating from kindergarten in this journey.” All things I was happy to hear.
I was also thrilled to see that in addition to products proclaiming to be “sustainable,” their vendor fair highlighted an incredibly wide range of non-governmental organizations and consulting firms offering to help corporate America figure out what to do next. Many of these organizations wouldn’t have gotten their phone calls returned three years ago. From the World Wildlife Fund to McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, the Rocky Mountain Institute, Trans Fair, Blue-Green, World Resources Institute, Act Now, the EPA, and numerous others, it was quite amazing to see Wal-Mart highlight so much of our nation’s sustainability brain trust.
But I’m not so sure Scott is right when he proclaims, “We save people money so they can live better,” and that “the (Wall Street Journal) is wrong, our business model is healthy.” Or that their new tag line, “Save money, live better,” is credible.
What scares me about this fever pitch of going green is the lack of systemic understanding of the problems we face, and the risk that some of these well-intentioned solutions are likely to make things worse. While compact fluorescents are great, too many of them are powered by coal plants. If you already own 50 t-shirts, buying another made from organic cotton will not make the world a better place. Purchasing CDs in recycled paperboard boxes will still create more CO2 emissions than downloading your music from the web. Less wasteful packaging of processed foods will not help solve the huge nutrition problem our nation faces. While I’m glad that some of the toxic chemicals are out of Scotchguard, why were they there in the first place? Do we really need to apply synthetic treatments to the fabrics in our homes if they’re going to pollute our bodies?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for incremental progress, I just don’t want to see us confuse “less bad” with “good.” Or worse, “less bad” with “sustainability, which it too often is.” (Nine times out of ten, when I hear the word sustainability used, it is abused if not totally bastardized.)
So what’s my conclusion? It’s difficult to say. I’m a cheerleader for Wal-Mart’s leadership and progress. But as Lee Scott said, this was a graduation ceremony from kindergarten, and the toughest challenges lie ahead. I hope everyone realizes that the best solutions aren’t likely to produce short-term profits. And I hope everyone plans to attend first grade.