The TH Interview: The Home Depot's Green Man, Ron Jarvis (Part 1)


The Home Depot is reluctant to call itself a green company—maybe because of the contradictions built into being the country's second largest retailer—but green has indeed become a guiding light for this 90-billion-dollar corporate behemoth. The company has partnered with BP in California to make home solar a plug-and-play item, has made alliances with universities to advance energy efficiency, and is working hard to peddle its Eco Options line, a series of products screened to meet standards of sustainable forestry, energy efficiency, clean water, and healthy homes. Ron Jarvis is the green man in the orange apron, and he's at the front lines of this amorphous and very hot topic that is mega-corporate sustainability.
Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or listen/right-click to download.
(For part 2, click here.)
TreeHugger: First of all, Ron, give us a sense of the scope of The Home Depot's size, how many stores, how many employees, how many customers served.

Ron Jarvis: Well, today we have a little over 2,200 stores and our customers will do over a billion transactions per year. As associates go, we're sitting at a little over 300,000 employees.

TreeHugger: And from your own perspective, what's your position at the company at present?

Ron: Senior Vice President of Environmental Innovation. I work very closely with the operators in the stores, make sure that we've got the proper sign package up, make sure we understand issues around different communities with environmental practices that we have.

Also, I work very closely with the product merchants to source, locate, and bring products that have less of an environmental impact into our stores for our customers to buy. I also then work with different agencies, whether it's EPA or DOE and those type groups, to try to keep us on the forefront of any environmental issues that are looming out there.

TreeHugger: That seems like a tall order. What's your background, and what brings you to this particularly unique-sounding position?

Ron: Well, it's interesting. I've been with The Home Depot for 13 years now. And in 2000 I was the divisional merchandise manager in Florida. We had actually made a wood purchasing policy announcement in 1999 and part of it was that we would look for sustainable forests for all of our products and that we would give preferential treatment to certified wood coming into the stores.

As a company, we had at that time about 10 to 11 different buying offices with merchants all over North America, pretty much buying from a lot of different wholesalers and suppliers and manufacturers. And we needed someone to step in and implement our wood purchasing policy, which is: understand the forestry situation across the world, understand the products that are sustainable and aren't sustainable, and understand the species that are growing and species that are depleting throughout the world. And I was brought in to do that in 2000, and have pretty much been involved in environmental issues at The Home Depot ever since then.

We've also gotten calls from schoolteachers and educators that have stumbled across the website and are starting to use that as part of their education process for their students. They see the products and they learn about them during the week, and during the weekend, when they're shopping with their parents, they see the products in the stores.

TreeHugger: One of the initiatives that you are doing is the Eco Options program. And part of that is educating consumers and bringing them into this process of understanding what sustainability means for the types of products that you're dealing with. The Eco Options site is quite robust—definitely goes beyond the regular roster of green things that you'd find in a consumer website. There's stuff like live online mini-clinics and do-it-yourself home energy and water audits. What other kinds of educational opportunities are people going to get when they check this out?

Ron: When we looked at our opportunities—getting product onto the floor, getting the correct sign package inside the store—we knew pretty early that educating the consumer was a very important part of sustainability across the U.S.

And if consumers understand what products they can buy that will have less of an impact on the environment, reduce their energy consumption, or reduce their carbon footprint, then it will make it much easier for them to come into the stores and find the product.

So, when we looked at the website, what we wanted to do was have an educationally-driven site, knowing that a lot of folks these days, especially the digital natives, want to sit down, go online, and understand their purchasing options before they go and buy a product. So, we looked at that and said, "Let's get a website up that has product information as well as overall, general educational information for the consumer." So, we put a lot of emphasis behind that.

And we also wanted to make it part of a website that is fun to look at, that has lots of information, but is also a place where a consumer can learn different actions they can do. We know that most consumers today don't realize the impact their house has, or even the impact that constructing and remodeling and building a home has, and the options that they can take to lessen that imprint.

TreeHugger: Do you see a positive response? Do you feel like they're plugging into this online resource, these "digital natives," as you say?

Ron: Yes, we do. We've heard just a tremendous amount of positive impact. We've also gotten calls from schoolteachers and educators that have stumbled across the website and are starting to use that as part of their education process for their students. It's something that the students can understand. They see the products and they learn about them during the week, and during the weekend, when they're shopping with their parents, they see the products in the stores.

Every time we see something that works in our stores to reduce energy consumption, we use that.

TreeHugger: So, Eco Options is part of how The Home Depot is bringing the customer into this process. Let's talk for a second about the behind-the-scenes stuff. Tell me about the overall corporate sustainability strategy. What does The Home Depot's environmental team look like, and how is the company structuring itself so that sustainability is really built into the mechanism?

Ron: In each different group that we have inside the company, whether it's operations, merchandising, advertising, we have people that are dedicated to sustainability, dedicated to environmental impacts. Inside of that group, we have an Environmental Council. Actually, I'm the chairman of the Environmental Council, but as far as the members go inside the Environmental Council, it's all of the leaders of each of the different functions.

And when we meet we talk about things that we need to do as a company to improve our impact on the environment. This ranges from the products that we're selling, of course, but also the products that we buy for internal use. For example, you can imagine how a company like Home Depot goes through a lot of paper. So, we look at the amount of recyclable paper that we're buying. We look at the waste distribution and recycling facilities that we have for our stores and the Store Support Center here in Atlanta. And of course there's logistics input as well as advertising input. And also, we look at the interface with the customer: recycling in the stores and recyclability of products that are moving through the stores.

One of the things that we also look at is the footprint of the store itself. We have built four LEED green buildings. We're reviewing those to see what type of impact they're having on the community and on the energy consumption of those stores as well. We've made small changes throughout the years. Every time we see something that works in our stores to reduce energy consumption, we use that.

An interesting fact is that stores built after 2002 use up to 34% less energy than stores built prior to 2002. Little moves that we've made over the years have helped us: even some pretty major moves we made in '06. We saved about $20 million in energy costs versus '05. So, there are a lot of things we're doing behind the scenes that are having an impact for us in multiple positive ways.

TreeHugger: Speaking of energy savings, green buildings, and the overall sustainability strategy for the company, what do the financial people at The Home Depot think of all this? Is this seen as a viable way to get into greater profitability?

Ron: Well, we look at it in two ways. The first is that we think it's the right thing to do. So, even at first, if it's not reaping rewards for the first few years that we do it, we're still going to do it. Number two, we feel pretty confident that the market for this type of product is going to be stronger in the future than it is now. So, we understand that putting money towards this today will hopefully pay great dividends in the future.

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