“The Whole World Will be Watching”

According to a lengthy article in Forbes, that’s a line that Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott delivered during his now-famous speech on sustainability from last Fall. If you’ve followed the series of announcements the giant retailer has made in the past year about plans for more sustainable development, you’ll only learn a few new things in this article, such as Rob Walton’s (Sam’s son) involvement in developing these policies. So, rather than review and comment about the article, I’d like to just meander a bit on what I think makes these developments relatively unique and promising: the element of transparency.

Scott’s right that the world is watching, as the mainstream media has really run with this story. We can argue about the level of analysis that’s appeared in these stories, but the one thing that runs through them all is 1) Wal-Mart’s development of specific, measurable standards for increasing efficiency, decreasing waste and purchasing more sustainable merchandise, and 2) the company’s efforts to reach out to many of its most vocal critics. Al Gore and Jeffrey Hollender are two of the more famous environmentally-concerned citizens that have traveled to Bentonville, but the company’s also had members of Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Federation and the National Resources Defense Council in for visits. Lee Scott’s even read Natural Capitalism! It really strikes me that Wal-Mart has made such a public effort. Sure, there’s PR value in all of it, but it also greatly lessens the opportunity for the company to successfully turn this into a mere greenwashing campaign. All eyes are on them now, and everyone involved expects tangible results spelled out by the company itself.

I guess that’s why I continue to be fascinated by these developments, and have overcome my inclination to merely dismiss any statements that come out of Bentonville. I mean, were I to advise a company on how to take serious steps towards greening itself, I’d tell them many of the things Wal-Mart has already done: talk to a wide range of experts, set measurable goals, and make sure that all of this is done transparently. Am I missing something…?

I’m still holding my breath, and holding on to my wallet, because of wage and benefit issues. While Wal-Mart’s taking steps that should really benefit overseas suppliers (i.e. possibly selling Bom Dia Fair Trade coffee in all of its stores), I’d sure like to see them take similar steps towards paying their employees a living wage and providing health benefits that at least meet industry standards. At the same time, I’m optimistic that this could happen — if Scott and the rest of the company are truly committed to sustainability, then they’ll want to complete a triple-bottom-line approach to doing business. I’ll still be waiting to see (Bom Dia coffee excepted, should they commit to carrying it at all of their stores), but I’m hopeful… and I couldn’t have said that a year ago…

UPDATE: Great discussion going on at Gristmill about this article…

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