Interview With Raul Vazquez, CEO of Walmart.com

Zero Waste

TH: Would you describe walmart.com environmental policy as top-down or bottom up? Do you come up with goals at the top, say 'this year we are going to cut waste by 20 percent', or do you go out to the various arms of your organization and say, 'what are you capable of doing' and get their ideas and come back up and put it together?

RV: It's a bit of both, that's a great question. Because we are right outside of the sf area, we have a very, very passionate group of employees when it comes to environmental issues and sustainability in general so there's an alias where there are multiple emails a week where people have read something interesting: There was one one day about the best way to do composting at home and we had several people chiming in with what they do at their house.

So there's a lot of bottoms up, just because of the passionate associates we have. And then there are some things that are top down. So we recently, for example, got to zero waste here in our walmart.com operations and that was by...really it was a conversation we'd been having with Bensonville where we wanted to try to get the California locations to be zero waste and we decided that we wanted to be part of that. So as an organization we put out all of the bins to try to make sure that we were diverting things from landfill, and then we had to get everyone excited about being able to hit that goal, and we did. So we feel very good about that. But that's probably a combination of one that started from tops down but then we need everyone to engage to be successful. So it's a combination of both.

TH: Zero Waste?

RV: Here in California, I believe diverting 95 percent of your waste is what counts as zero waste, is what I've been told, and we've been able to do that with all of our offices here at walmart.com.

Save Money. Buy Less?

TH: I am sure you have remarked the fact that the waste created in your offices is a drop in the bucket compared to the waste created by consumers of the products you sell online. Wal-Mart's former CEO Lee Scott, at the Wal-Mart Sustainability Summit in 2008 in China, addressed the question of whether sustainability requires Wal-Mart consumers to buy less things. What's your attitude on that?

RV: I don't think that that's necessarily at odds with who we are as a company. I believe, and I'm sure that when Lee said it, that people were probably surprised to hear a retailer say it, but we believe in sustainability in general; I mean, we want to do things that are going to be good for the planet and that are going to be good for the human race. So to the extent that we can help build mechanisms for customers to buy high quality products and to be thoughtful both in terms of purchasing and disposing of product, that can only be a good thing for us as a company. And as you know, even the question you asked earlier about the improvement in efficiency of trucks, many of the things that we are working on come out of our strength as a business which is to look for inefficiencies or look for waste and figure out how we can pass (improvements) along to the consumer. So I do think that a lot of sustainability is very consistent with how we approach business and how we make decisions.

Clearly it took a lot of leadership on Lee's part to start this and to add another priority to people's plates but I think the more we've learned about it and the more involved we've become, the more we realize it's very consistent with how we operate our business. Maybe (earlier) we did not focus on it quite as much or use the right word but we've been able to do it in a way that is consistent with our "muscle memory", if you will.

TH: Muscle Memory?

RV: Just our area of strength. There are some things that are intellectual, but it takes more time to convince someone to do something that is different, to try to drive a change, versus finding a way to rely on things people already know how to do. And we know how to look for efficiency in a business.

The Amazon Affair

TH: Which leads into one of my other questions, and that is, Wal-Mart has really been a dominant supplier of low price goods, and you have certainly just fired a shot across Amazon.com's bow. Is it the intention of Wal-Mart to put the other guys out of business by coming in with low prices and becoming the dominant online retail site?

RV: No, it is never our intent to put someone out of business. That is never a goal. Our goal is to serve our customers with low prices. In any industry there is an ecosystem of people that are trying to satisfy the needs of their customers. Some do it based on price, others do it based on service alone, and then there are some who come in between with a combination of price and service. Thankfully the population is big enough that it can support many people. But what we do, is we try to go to market with our approach which is we try to provide high quality, brand-name product at low prices and then the customer decides who they want to give their business to. The things that you have seen us do, really, in the last few months and years, have been simply to try to raise awareness about the fact that there is a walmart.com and that we do offer many of the products that are offered by other people. We offer them at a lower price, as you would expect Wal-Mart to do, but we don't go into any of these things saying we are going to put this particular company out of business.

The Sustainability of Sourcing Overseas

TH: Hard question for you: Wal-Mart sources a tremendous fraction of the goods you sell from China. Have you looked at studies on the sustainability of sourcing locally versus sourcing overseas?

RV: I haven't. Those are the sorts of things that you would want to talk about with Matt Kistler, who leads all of our sustainability efforts for Wal-Mart in the U.S., simply because he's taken the time to read some of those things, that's the bulk of his job. What I can tell you as a leader of one of the divisions and even as a consumer, is that one of the opportunities that I think exists in the whole grain movement is trying to find a way to get to more conclusive studies of things and trying to find a way to simplify things. At times, you can try to find a way to be more responsible and to make the right decision and you'll feel like one day, one study tells you one thing and then a week later another study tells you a different thing, and unfortunately I think it can lead to either paralysis on one end of the spectrum or a high degree of cynicism at the other end of the spectrum.

I just I'd like people who spend more time thinking about these complex and nuanced issues to be able to guide me a bit more, and there's just, there's a lot of noise in the marketplace.

TH: That's why I thought you might have some insight into the question of local versus overseas sourcing.

RV: I can try to point you to Matt Kistler. One of the things I am learning over time is, if I don't know something, just to say I don't know. I'm even trying to teach my kinds to do that. And Matt reads so much more about this and talks to some many more people about these kinds of things, that I think he would be in a better position to have that conversation with you. (Note: we hope to bring our readers an interview with Matt Kistler soon).

More of TreeHugger's interview with Raul Vazquez on

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Tags: Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | TH Interview | Walmart