How Wal-Mart won over a Sierra Club president

May 17, 2011, 4:22 PM UTC

By Edward Humes, contributor

Editor’s Note: America’s biggest company is trying to grow in size but shrink its environmental footprint. Since 2004, Wal-Mart has been tackling the paradoxical task of becoming the prototype for sustainable capitalism. In the new book Force of Nature, Edward Humes chronicles the company’s recent green-shift in values. Here, he describes how

Sierra Club president Adam Werbach — the youngest-ever president of the powerful environmental organization — came around to the idea of working with Wal-Mart on its environmental initiatives.

A typical Wal-Mart discount department store i...
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The presence of the outspoken Werbach at Wal-Mart (WMT) (Werbach took the company on as a consulting client), and his repeated statements that he believed the retail giant was sincere in its green ambitions, perplexed and roiled the close-knit landscape of major U.S. environmental groups. Most of them tended to view the retailer as Werbach had done up until 2005: as a company that would tear down nature just so it could sell a cheaper pair of underpants. “I thought they were the devil,” he recalls simply. Many of his progressive friends and colleagues, already taken aback by his “environmentalism-is-dead” speech, were horrified that he would even meet with Wal-Mart representatives, much less go to work for the company, and Werbach tended to agree with them — at first. Then he took his first trip to Bentonville, an exploratory visit before he and Wal-Mart agreed to work together.

To his surprise, he found a line of managers and career-Wal-Mart people waiting to meet with him, asking him why he thought their company was perceived so negatively when, internally, they said they prided themselves on always trying do the right thing. They kept asking: Why is there this disconnect? What can we do better? Werbach, who until that moment felt he probably would not work for Wal-Mart, began to wonder if coming to Bentonville might be one of the greatest opportunities to bring about environmental progress he had ever encountered. Ruben, Jackson, and even [Wal-Mart CEO] Lee Scott all told him that the company needed to hear outside views on these questions — even when the answers were not what Wal-Mart supporters liked to hear.

When Werbach and Wal-Mart agreed he would launch the Personal Sustainability Projects, which in a year grew from a pilot program in 120 stores to a companywide initiative, environmentalists derided his efforts to interest workers in sustainability at home and in their personal lives as inconsequential, even frivolous, in comparison with the enormous environmental concerns raised by Wal-Mart’s business model and supply chain.

Carl Pope, then executive director of the Sierra Club, dismissed Werbach’s work at Wal-Mart with a quip: “It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” But Werbach, whose consultancy expanded from ten to forty staffers through his work with Wal-Mart and was then bought out by Saatchi and Saatchi, sees it differently. He and his fellow activists had for years bemoaned the inability of Sierra and other green groups to attract the interest and support of Middle America.

And here was Wal-Mart, putting him in charge of the largest sustainability education program in history. “I was training a million people on what green is, on what a carbon footprint is, on energy conservation. It was unheard of, and they loved it. These weren’t people in grad schools, these were people making eleven bucks an hour, and there was a thirst for this information. I’ve done tons of organizing on college campuses, elite universities, urban areas, but I’ve never seen uptake like this.” As the training went from store to store, employees would talk up their sustainability projects in their communities, Werbach said, and soon teachers would be calling to see how they could build a similar program into their curriculums.

The main reason the word “sustainability” is a widely understood term today, concludes Werbach, is that Wal-Mart made it part of the national conversation. “Wrap you head around that if you’re a hemp-wearing environmentalist.”

–From the book
Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution
, by Edward Humes. Copyright © 2011 by Edward Humes. Reprinted courtesy of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.