Wal-Mart's Sustainability Summit: Greenwash It Was Not


Apologies for the lack of images of the event itself, cameras were not permitted in the conference hall.

When we solicited our reader's views on the Wal-Mart Live Better Sustainability Summit yesterday, and on the company's eco-efforts in general, the majority of responses could best be described as cautiously positive. A few detractors did question whether a chain the size of Wal-Mart can ever be truly green, but others pointed out that it is Wal-Mart's sheer size that makes it such a potential driver for sustainability across the business world. There was no clearer indication of this possibility than wandering the isles of the summit yesterday.

Representatives of suppliers to Wal-Mart mingled with company associates perusing information on efficient manufacturing, renewable energy, organics, certified forestry, and change management for sustainability. They asked questions on how they could green their packaging, how they in turn can influence their own suppliers, and what can they do to cut their carbon footprint. It really was palpable that these companies are taking sustainability very, very seriously now that Wal-Mart is doing the same. We spotted CEOs, VPs and other senior executives of major corporations including BBC International. Sony, 3M, SC Johnson and others. This was a major event, with serious green content way beyond PR fluff. We will be reporting more on the details of the summit over the next few days, as this post is being written from the airport as the author travels back home, but in brief the day consisted of a well appointed resource fair, with exhibitors including WWF, FSC, BP Solar, TransFair, Organic Exchange, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, the Biomimicry Guild, Act Now and many, many more.

The main event was a speech by CEO Lee Scott in which he stated in no uncertain terms that Wal-Mart is in this for the long haul, and expects its suppliers to be in it for the long haul too. Scott pointed out that while his company is aiming for zero waste and 100% renewable energy, this still only accounts for 8% of its footprint, and that Wal-Mart must green its supply chain if it has any chance of becoming sustainable (Scott was also at pains to point out that the company is not, and does not claim to be, a green organization - it is just starting to move in that direction). We will bring you a separate post on the details of what was said, but Scott announced a number of milestones that have been reached, including already passing their goal of selling 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs this year, and then described how suppliers can do their part to reduce packaging, eliminate toxins, and green their energy use.

We left the event in no doubt that Wal-Mart has set itself firmly in the spotlight by making a strong, unequivocal statement on it's goal of sustainability, and any u-turn would be tough indeed. The motivation for these moves is, as many of our readers have pointed out, not a question of philanthropy - Wal-Mart sees clear business opportunities and intends to seize them. In the end this is perhaps the most encouraging sign of all - putting any moral imperetive aside, businesses are seeing that green just makes sense.

Having said all of the above, a huge question still remains - can a company that is based on selling as much stuff as possible, as cheaply as possible, ever be green? If they use half as much energy to produce a T-short, but sell four times as many, the environment will still suffer. This is a conundrum that goes to the very heart of the sustainability debate, and one that Wal-Mart does not have the answer to (to be fair, they don't claim to either). Ultimately, so much of being green on an individual level is about buying less crap, and using what we have better. This author is unlikely to be shopping at Wal-Mart any time soon, and tends to avoid shopping as much as possible anyway. Nevertheless, we don't see a collapse of our capitalist system coming any time soon (and we're not sure we'd welcome it when it came), so we see any efforts by a company as large as Wal-Mart to make things better, greener and and with better conditions for its workers and those of its suppliers as a very, very good thing. ::Wal-Mart Live Better Sustainability Summit:: Via personal invite::

Disclaimer: Sami Grover is also Director of Sustainability at The Change, a company that was invited to exhibit at the event.

Tags: Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | Walmart

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