Wal-Mart Senior Executives on Selling Solar and Playing Politics

Picture borrowed from Groovy Green, via EcoTalk

As part of the Wal-Mart Live Better Sustainability Summit, which we have been reporting on for the last few days (see our initial reports here and here, our interview with exhibitors FSC here, and with Wal-Mart suppliers here and here), we managed to get a chance to sit down with a panel of senior executives and ask a few questions. Present were Andy Ruben, Vice President of Strategy and Sustainability; Linda Dillman, Executive Vice President of Risk Management, Benefits and Sustainability; Leslie Dach, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Government Relations; and Doug McMillan, CEO of Sam’s Club. Time was limited, so we didn’t get to put to them all of the queries that flooded into the comments box after our initial post, but we did discuss Wal-Mart’s role in the political debate surrounding sustainability, both at home and abroad, and we also asked about the potential for Wal-Mart to create access to solar technology, and renewable energy products in general (for another interesting perspective on the day's events, check out Joel Makower's report here).

TreeHugger: Green consumerism, and greener product design can only take us so far. Yet Wal-Mart also has a lot of political leverage. What are you doing to bring about legislative change, both in the US, and in other countries that you operate in such as China?
Leslie Dach: The political situation is different in all of the countries that we operate in. In China, I think our primary focus has been getting to understand how to work with our supply chain, and helping our suppliers to become more energy efficient, produce less waste, etc. Our sense is that we can have a greater impact there than by trying to become political lobbyists in Beijing.

In the US, I think we’ve made clear on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that we think it’s appropriate to have legislation to help move things forward. We say that to every legislator we have the opportunity to speak with. The other thing that we’ve been able to do is that by working successfully with NGOs and others, we have shown to the politicians that this is fairly mainstream, and that there is increasing consumer demand for sustainability. We can show that it is not going to hurt America’s ability to succeed in the global market place, and that this is a huge innovation opportunity.

If we can help send those signals to the government, that’s where we can be really effective. No one person, or five people, can go to Washington and simply sit down with a politician who previously believed one thing, and make them believe something else. What we can do is help change the context of the political argument, so when a legislator weighs up what the right thing to do is, both on the merits, and on the politics, we can help them come to a different place.

Linda Dillman: Just to add to that, part of the challenge right now is building the relationships so that when the opportunities arise to discuss these issues, we are invited to the table. It’s probably a little bit early for that kind of pressure, depending on the country, but one of the things we bring to the table is the view of the consumer. It’s important to understand the role the consumer can play in this in the long term. Yes, there needs to eventually be major structural changes, but if I look at the near-term, and I want to do something about climate change, then I think the change is going to come from the consumer. So making sure the consumer’s voice is heard as we move forward is vital.

TH: A question that was asked by one of our readers when we announced we were coming to this summit, was when is Wal-Mart going to start selling solar panels? More broadly speaking, what’s the potential for Wal-Mart to create access to renewable energy products?
Doug McMillan: We’d love to, but it’s got to be viable and there’s got to be consumer demand. Sam’s Club serves over 5 million small businesses, and there may be an opportunity to reach them before we reach the general consumer. We’ve got some things coming that I’m not sure have reached the shelves yet, but we have discussions going on with several suppliers to try and see what is viable. I do believe we will be selling solar panels, but I don’t think it will be next week, or next month.

I don’t know if you’ll find this interesting or not, but if you rewind the clock a few years we had a business that we called hardware, selling hammers, nails, tape measures etc. That business has been declining, and that category has changed for us into energy and storage – it’s about CFLs, it’s about water filters, it’s about storage – it’s no longer about what it used to be about. We are very open to energy solutions that we can sell to our members, because we’ve already seen them respond positively to other items.

Andy Ruben: The other point I would add is, beyond solar, if we look at some of the leading edge technologies that we are exploring for our stores, take LED lighting for example, there are opportunities there. I’m not sure we’ve always done as good a job with this as we should, but as we apply LED lighting in a store, and then in the parking lot, the price comes down. Eventually we are able to offer this technology to our small business members, and then finally to the consumer on the shelf in a Wal-Mart store. We can look at the changes that are being made in our stores in terms of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems that we know will eventually make it into our homes, and will save us money on our energy consumption. So we are seeing an increased connectivity between the industrial setting and the consumer, which is a very exciting 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 asked to exhibit at the event.

Tags: Arkansas | Bentonville | Consumerism | Walmart