Wal-Mart Wooing Seventh Generation?

We've dedicated an awful lot of space to Wal-Mart recently, but with the steady supply of curve balls the mega-corporation has thrown in the last year, it's hard not to keep coming back to the company that so many Treehuggers love to hate. Is the world's largest retailer serious about changing its ways? Could it actually use its tremendous influence to push us over that tipping point towards more sustainable ways of living our lives and doing business? Or, is it all just greenwashing of the highest order? The jury's still out, of course, but it looks like Wal-Mart will keep us scratching our heads for the near term.

Of course, we're not the only one's trying to wrap our heads around Wal-Mart's declarations of more responsible business practices: the business community itself is keeping a close eye on the boys in Bentonville. So, when I received today's Non-Toxic Times from Seventh Generation, and saw that CEO Jeffrey Hollender had met with his Wal-Mart counterpart Lee Scott, I couldn't click through quickly enough to get to the story. Hollender admits that he's been doing a lot of head-scratching, too, and was both intrigued and surprised by the invitation to meet with Scott and other company executives. Many of us know that Hollender's been an outspoken critic of Wal-Mart, so the idea of "an audience with the King," as he puts it, brought with it many questions:

Why does the president of the world’s largest company want to spend time with me—the president of a tiny Vermont business, author of a book about corporate responsibility, and a frequent, harsh, and vocal critic? How can I engage with the essence of a giant like Wal-Mart to meaningfully alter its trajectory and harness its potential to be a power for equity, justice and environmental sustainability? It’s a tall order.
A tall order, no doubt, but after reading Hollender's full account of the meeting, and his own thoughts that sprang from it, I got the feeling that Wal-Mart's top brass are also trying to wrap their brains around the enormity of what the Walton family has created, and the fierce, organized criticism that's arisen, particularly in the last few years. According to Hollender, Scott himself not only fully acknowledged the breadth of criticism aimed at the company, but also admitted that they'd played a role in the force it had gathered:
Lee, who has been president for only five years, says that they’ve spent most of their time bringing in the sandbags to reinforce their bunker. They’ve effectively helped organize the whole activist community by refusing to engage in any meaningful dialogue. The labor community (WalmartWatch, WakeupWalMart) has seized this opening that Wal-Mart has inadvertently created.

A big mistake, says Lee. We helped organize our enemies better than they could have done themselves. (In fact, Wal-Mart has unintentionally succeeded in uniting a diverse collection of activists, from labor and environmental advocates to health care and women’s rights campaigners, that otherwise rarely even speak to each other.)

Without giving too much else away, it's safe to say that Hollender sees tremendous opportunity with Wal-Mart, and believes they'd like to take advantage of it. Will they? He's not sure, but he's still talking with them. You still won't find Seventh Generation products at Wal-Mart, but given the soul-searching that's clearly going on in Bentonville, that may not always be the case. ::The Non-Toxic Times

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