Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers: Adam Werbach is Your Neighbor

Suburban sprawl mcmansions arkansas photo

Suburban sprawl in the form of a cookie-cutter neighborhood in Arkansas.
Adam Werbach is the Global CEO of sustainability agency Saatchi & Saatchi S. This is the first in a series of guest columns he'll be writing for TreeHugger.

There's a saying that's deeply ingrained in Toyotaculture, "Genchi Genbutsu" which translates to "Go and see for yourself." With that spirit in mind, I've moved my family to Northwest Arkansas this summer to spend time deepening my understanding of the emerging sustainability consumer movement outside of coastal cities and college towns.

Northwest Arkansas is well-known of course as the birthplace and home office of Wal-Mart, which has over the last few years established itself as a sustainability leader, despite expectations--my own included--that their efforts were a shallow public relations move.

I'm not a neutral party to this. Over the last couple of years I've served as a sustainability strategist for them, which has been the most rewarding work in my career since my first full-time job when I served as President of the Sierra Club. The purpose of the blog posts over the next few weeks is to share some of the lessons I'm learning in the hope that these insights might prove useful to entrepreneurs and advocates. Eighty-nine percent of Americans shop at Wal-Mart at least once a year, so, if you believe as I do that we need to engage everyone in the sustainability movement, there are few places that provide a better platform or a greater willingness to transform.

If you have three kids and you're moving to Arkansas, the first thing you need to do is find a house. Fortunately that's not a huge challenge right now, with the spectacular growth of the area over the last decade—developers have built more large houses than the population needs. Here's a photo of the 3,500 square foot Tudor Style home that we've rented for about half the cost of the mortgage for our home in Bernal Heights in San Francisco that's about one-third the size.

Across the street a row of houses remains unsold.

Our first trip was to Wal-Mart Supercenter #5260 on Pleasant Crossing Boulevard. My four-year-old daughter Mila immediately saw the windmill in the parking lot. We had left our cloth bags in San Francisco so we bought a handful of the $1 bags they're now selling.

canvas bag on a countertop photo

The Werbach family's new reusable shopping bags.

The cashier struggled with the plastic band that had been placed around the straps to ensure that people don't steal items in them or pretend that they already owned them. The woman behind us in line used that opportunity to go and buy her own cloth bags while she was waiting. "I always forget them too," she said, almost blushing.

About an hour later we emerged with our cart full of food, prepared for the summer.

Wal-Mart shoppers leaving the big box store

Outside Adam's new hometown Wal-Mart in Arkansas.

One of the best things about being in Northwest Arkansas is the number of Fortune 500 companies who have a major presence here. Separately from Wal-Mart, the transportation company JB Hunt and Tyson chicken are both based here. But beyond them, most major consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs for short) have major offices here. As an example, Procter & Gamble, the world's leading CPG company, has an office building of about 300 staff here. Wal-Mart is their biggest customer, and understanding how Wal-Mart merchandizes their products inside and out allows them to put better products on the shelves and market them effectively. With major statements from Wal-Mart leadership that basically declare that in the next five years all products at Wal-Mart will have sustainability innovations incorporated into them, there's a scramble now to figure out how to make their products stand out. The leading suppliers to Wal-Mart are rethinking their products from top to bottom; the laggards are just trying to figure out how to tell a good story about what they're already doing.

Over the last month we've been doing a research project on sustainability through the eyes of a shopper, focusing on how moms view sustainability as they walk down the aisles of a store. In the next column I'll share some of the early conclusions we're finding. In the mean time you can post questions for me here or on Facebook.

More about Adam Werbach
This Month in Fast Company: Adam Werbach Sells Out
Dissecting Environmentalism: An Interview With Adam Werbach
More about Wal-Mart and Sustainability
The TH Interview: Andy Ruben & Matt Kissler of Wal-Mart
All Quiet On The Wal-Mart Front
Wal-Mart: The Next Steps Toward Sustainability

Wal-Mart Aims To Sell 100 Million Compact Fluorescents In One Year

It's Getting Harder to Hate Wal-Mart : TreeHugger
More about the Sierra Club
We Hear Ya: Answers to Questions about the Sierra Club and Clorox Green Works
The TH Interview: Mark Tercek—An Investment Golden Boy Heads for the NGO World

Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers: Adam Werbach is Your Neighbor
There's a saying