Friday, November 21, 2008

Net Impact Closing - Celebrating (ahem!) Wal*mart

The closing keynote last Saturday (image from with Matt Kistler Senior VP of Sustainability was less of an engagement with the mass of students at the conference than what seemed like a coronation of Wal*mart as the King of Sustainability. Make no mistake, Wal*mart's status as the 800 pound guerrilla of, well, everything makes their actions that much more attention getting. Yet, I cannot help but think that the conversation is still about maintaining a system that is inherently unsustainable by making it "less bad" than by reinventing a regenerative economy that restores ecosystems while invigorating humanity.

But I digress. Seriously, I was disappointed again by the fact that the session with Matt was about 1.5 hours and the moderator allowed time for all of three questions from the audience. The first 10 minutes or so was a love-fest for Matt, with joking and joshing like we were on the set of the Late Show with David Letterman. Maybe I am sounding a bit like a sour puss here, but the mind-share Wal*mart received over the course of the NI event was a little too much for me to bear, and I expected some tougher questions about how all these great things were really going to happen. There seemed to be way too much back-slapping when the baby steps taken are only the barest of beginnings. He's a good spokesman for the greening of the company

Moving on. I am sure they rehearsed what they were going to talk about, and the danger of allowing freeform questions to hit Matt (whose background is more on the management side than the technical side of "sustainability"), potentially leading to a foot-in-mouth moment with smart and savvy green leaning MBAs was certainly real. Yet, I cannot help but think that a tremendous opportunity for open and honest conversation was lost.

Some of the things Wal*mart committed to in 2006, taken from a USAToday article;
• Slash gasoline use by its trucking fleet, one of the largest in the USA, and use more hybrid trucks to increase efficiency by 25% over the next three years and double it within 10 years. That will save $310 million a year by 2015, the company says.
• Buy 100% of its wild-caught salmon and frozen fish for the North American market only from fisheries that are certified as "sustainable" by the non-profit Marine Stewardship Council within three to five years. That designation means areas of the ocean aren't fished in ways that destroy fish populations.
• Cut energy use at its more than 7,000 stores worldwide by 30% and cut greenhouse-gas emissions at existing stores by 20% in seven years. Wal-Mart is the largest private electricity user in the USA.
• Reduce solid waste from U.S. stores by 25% within three years.
There were a few other things Matt mentioned in his talk, great things that Wal*mart has committed to, and I am curious how they are tracking their performance; did not get a chance to ask that question. I suppose I could dig through their sustainability report...

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