WANTED: One highly motivated, business-savvy, environmentally minded, entrepreneurial self-starter, looking to have a potentially worldchanging impact on how business gets done from a sustainability perspective. Must be willing to move to a small town in northwestern Arkansas. Inquire within.
That's my take on a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity (PDF) for the right person: Working with one of the leading environmental groups to transform the way Wal-Mart does business, from how it sources its products to how it runs its stores -- and just about everything else.
Rob Katz wrote about this opportunity a few months back when Wal-Mart's door first opened. Problem is, finding that "right person" has turned out to be more than a little challenging, according to Environmental Defense, the group seeking to fill the position. It's not that there aren't business-savvy environmentalists or environmentally-savvy business types out there. And there are boatloads of nimble, entrepreneurial souls. And maybe even a few folks interested in moving to Bentonville, Arkansas (population: 28,621), where Wal-Mart is based.
It's just that there hasn't yet been a candidate who fits all of those criteria.
The job, formally titled "Corporate Partnerships Project Manager - Wal-Mart," symbolizes a sea change in environmental activism. Environmental Defense is positioning someone in Bentonville -- not to confront or watchdog Wal-Mart, but to work with the company as a kind of sustainability consultant.
Suffice to say, this represents a sea change for Wal-Mart, too. For years, the retail giant stonewalled and fought its critics on a wide range of issues. It's still doing that in some instances, but it also has invited dozens of activists, academics, and advisors inside to help the company forge a more sustainable path.
Wal-Mart engaged Environmental Defense about a year ago, when the company embarked on a new environmental initiative. Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's CEO, had just given a speech on "twenty-first century leadership" (download - PDF), where he acknowledged that "As one of the largest companies in the world, with an expanding global presence, environmental problems are OUR problems." He set forth three ambitious environmental goals: that Wal-Mart be supplied 100% by renewable energy, that it create "zero waste," and that it sell products "that sustain our resources and environment."
Soon thereafter, Wal-Mart began gathering activists and others in Bentonville for a series of meetings that led to formation of more than a dozen "sustainable value networks," each headed by a Wal-Mart manager and consisting of company associates, environmentalists, suppliers, and some outside consultants. There are now fifteen networks focusing on everything from climate to cotton to toxics to toys. Out of those sustainable value networks have come some of Wal-Mart's first wave of green commitments: a no-idle policy for trucks at its distribution centers, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 100,000 tons a year; a commitment to, within the next five years, purchase 100% of its wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for the North American market from Marine Stewardship Council certified fisheries; a plan announced in September to measure its 60,000 worldwide suppliers on their ability to develop packaging and conserve natural resources; and last week's pledge to sell 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs by the end of 2007.
"Wal-Mart has the potential to create market value in the form of new consumer products and new markets for suppliers that are willing to innovate," says Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships for Environmental Defense. "Its long-term goals are very aggressive."
The new hire will be planted in Bentonville, near the belly of the beast, better able to interact with what Ruta describes as the company's frenetic pace of change. "To work effectively with Wal-Mart, you've got to be able to keep up with them," she told me. "And you've got to be able to be creative along with them. There's almost nothing they won't explore, but you also have to be able to challenge them with aggressive goals."
The trick, she says, is to help Wal-Mart develop solutions that create both environmental and business benefits. "They're smart and creative, so when you start talking with them about, say, how to create carbon offsets in their supply chain, they get really excited about that. So there's a huge amount of opportunity."
But finding someone who can play effectively in that rarefied air has turned out to be more challenging than Ruta and her team ever expected. The right person, she says, will need two key skill sets: "They will need to have a fairly broad understanding of a range of environmental issues -- not necessarily deep expertise, but be more of an environmental generalist. But also be able to operate in a corporate environment. And they've got to be able to put things in terms that make sense to Wal-Mart as a company -- to translate environmental goals into good business strategy."
The ideal candidate, she adds, is someone who would never have imagined moving to Arkansas, but who understands the potential for this job to influence a $315 billion retail behemoth and its 60,000 suppliers -- arguably, to have as much direct environmental impact as any activist or consultant ever could.
Perhaps it will be someone like Andy Ruben, who moved to Bentonville from Chicago in 2000 to become Wal-Mart's vice president for corporate strategy and sustainability. "If you had asked me or my wife six years ago, 'List the 50 most likely cities you can see yourself in,' Northwest Arkansas would not have made the list," Ruben told me last week. But now that he's rooted in Bentonville, he has no plans of leaving. "Life here has been, in one word, easy. What makes it a no-brainier for me these days is the opportunity around sustainability for Wal-Mart. The opportunities are meaningful and absolutely endless."
Although I consider myself a pragmatic environmentalist, transforming Wal-Mart is indeed a challenging idea. In my fondest dreams I can perhaps envision a future Wal-Mart selling 100% green products and having a large positive impact in getting the world to create them. I can imagine them showing other corporations how to reduce their footprints, too. I can imagine enormous good coming from their ability to get green products into the hands of consumers. If they can do all that and still make money, fine. But even if they succeed at that, the whole rest of their business model will still have to go.
That model includes, obviously, importing their goods via fossil fuel from far across the earth (70% from China, according to Worlchanging). It includes placing their stores outside of--even purposely between--small towns, thereby increasing car use, and creating retail ghost towns all across America where real (and efficient) towns used to be. It includes stretching the sprawl ever further into prime farmland, thereby encouraging more sprawl and subdivision in between. (I'll skip the cultural and corporate imperialism stuff for now.) Even from a fairly narrowly green perspective, that entire side of the business model will have to go. Period. Even with everyone driving electric cars in some happy renewable future that part will still a problem, one that no green manager will ever solve. Or am I missing something?