Another Transition: Wal-Mart’s Incoming CEO Declares “Sustainability is not Optional”

Mike Duke, Lee Scott and William McDonough at 2009 Wal-Mart Sustainability Milestone meetingLast June, I asked if it was “crunch time” for Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiatives?Β  After all, the economy was faltering, and consumers were focused on saving money more than saving the planet. After subsequent economic events (think Lehman Brothers, the car makers, and 2.6 million jobs lost), that question seems even more pertinent.

So, when I pulled up the recorded webcast of Monday’s Sustainability Milestone Meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, I was very interested to see what Mike Duke, who will take over the reigns of the company on February 2nd, had to say about the topic in relationship to the current economic climate.

Of course, this meeting was “star-studded” in a fashion: no Queen Latifah or American Idol winners, but famed architect and cradle-to-cradle proponent William McDonough was the keynote speaker for the event. While I’m always interested to hear what McDonough had to say, Duke was the one to watch at this meeting. The move towards sustainability has been a keystone of the second half of outgoing CEO Lee Scott’s tenure at the helm; would Duke give any indication that he didn’t share his predecessor’s passion for greening the company?

Quite the contrary: Duke not only noted emphatically that sustainability was “not optional,” but also claimed that, in this economic climate, it’s critical: elimination of wastes, and making more efficient use of resources, is absolutely necessary if the company wants to continue in its position as the “low-price leader.” Sustainability has become central to Wal-Mart’s ability to maintain its brand.

In a general sense, one could argue those were great words for a press release (and you’d probably be right), but Duke went one step further: he told the assembled associates, both in person and via webcast, that their ability to move up in the company was tied to their own commitments to embracing sustainability:

This is an opportunity to step out in leadership. No matter what your job is: even from our hourly associates to our frontline supervisors to our senior leadership, sustainability is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership… You will see that the leaders that get ahead in Wal-Mart will be the ones who demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. You won’t be able to be viewed, in the future, in the same way if you put this on the back burner.Β  It’s beyond encouragement: my challenge to you is to move sustainability to the front burner if you don’t already have it there, because it will be about your leadership and your future.

While we’ll all want to see how this plays out, and if the company releases any information about how sustainability will plays into employee evaluations and promotion decisions, Duke’s tone was as direct as the words themselves.

If Mike Duke was starting off his time as CEO with forceful words about sustainability and company culture, Lee Scott was ending his by fondly reminiscing about the journey Wal-Mart had taken so far. He asked others in the room to comment on what they thought this move had meant, and noted several times that he thought their efforts stood out because of their substance (he used the word “real”).

But the part of his address that stood out for me was something you almost never hear from an executive of a large company: an admission of a past failure (usually those only come after negative revelation in the media, or an unfavorable court judgment). Like Duke, Scott noted how sustainability fit the company’s very long commitment to improved efficiency, and commented on their past disregard of “green” issues by asking (rhetorically) “Who would’ve guessed we were this sloppy?”

While neither of these points, by Mr. Duke or Mr. Scott, were necessarily the highlight of their comments to the meeting, both illustrated a message that Wal-Mart seems to have taken to heart: sustainability isn’t simply about “social responsibility,” or “being a good corporate citizen,” but about business accountability in a fairly conventional sense. In my mind, that’s something to celebrate: “green” isn’t a PR or marketing strategy, but a critical component of company success and longevity.

I did dig around for reaction to the meeting from some of the company’s most vocal critics, but was unable to find any responses… if I missed any, please let me know.Β  And, of course, I’m always open to “drinking the Kool-Aid” criticism… fire away!

Image: Mike Duke, Lee Scott, and William McDonough.

Image credit: Wal-Mart

  1. Sam

    Walmart is years ahead of other big box stores as far as green stuff goes. They have some interesting energy initiatives going on, including using skylights to provide daytime lighting. Now if only they would turn off some lights at night…

  2. Lynn

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, that tying promotions or other incentives to sustainability actions provides a MAJOR incentive to change…IF it’s carried out. Very interested to see how this evolves (if it does).

  3. John

    Yet more evidence that main stream businesses are going green – for whatever reason. We get calls from businesses everyday asking how our promotional products can tie into their green marketing plans.

  4. watergrl

    Wal-Mart can not become a sustainable business because their business model is to come into an area and take over local commerce, putting current retailers out of business. A business that covers acres of land with a single-story building and paved parking lots is not sustainable building design. A business that sells useless objects and encourages consumerism is not sustainable. A business that says it will sell organic food from China is laughable. China is polluted, its air and waters foul. Shipping food and products from China to Wal-Marts all over the world is not sustainable. A businss that offers low-paying part-time jobs with no benefits is not sustainable. A business that pressures city councils and leaders relentlessly until it gets its construction permits and builds yet another ugly box store that is only accessible by car is not sustainable. WAL-MART CAN NEVER BE A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS because their business model is to become a monopoly, destroying community in their wake.

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