Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Wal-Mart: Friend or Foe?

After college graduation, I took a road trip from Bloomington, Indiana to San Francisco (well it was actually a one-way trip). Early in our trip we quickly became intrigued with talk radio, and as much as it kills me to say this, Dr. Laura. It was an unhealthy and somewhat pathetic simple pleasure, but it sparked good controversy on the long road ahead which resulted in one of my favorite quotes ever said by one of my friends in reference to the conservative "doctor:"

"Dr. Laura - love to hate her, hate to love her!"

I kind of feel like that is the sentiment surrounding all of the Wal-Mart green controversy. While you want to simply hate the big-box retailer for their massive overhaul of suburbanizing our local communities and displacing thousands of local businesses, you can't deny the bold initiatives they are making in the world of sustainability.

After recently hearing a presentation from a Wal-Mart executive, I have to admit I was quite impressed. He spoke of the various levels the company was addressing sustainability from its employees through its supply chain. It was an inspiring and impressive presentation. Just as he was winding down, he provided an example of a product that was actually a natural bug killer but it had a somewhat soft name. I think the message he was trying to prove that we are now living in a world where transparency is key and if you are a bug killer you should have a name that exemplifies the act of (and this is a quote in reference to how he feels about cockroaches and one that was quite animated) "KILL KILL KILL."

Now I am not advocating to save all the cockroaches, but surely he could have chosen a better example and not have offended the entire conservationist movement from which sustainability is born. This is an extreme and nit-picky critique of what otherwise was a very effective presentation. The point is, that Wal-Mart is under great scrutiny and for every step towards the sustainable light they make, they have to be hyper vigilant of the core values of the movement and how that is being messaged in the corporate values.

This is a complicated movement. One that is born of classic conservationist ideology and theory and is transforming into an almost manic marketing movement that everyone wants to be a part of. Are environmentalism and sustainability one in the same and can the old-school movement embrace the innovation that must be embraced to create a sustainable future? I think the only answer is they must.

At 200 million customers, no one can deny Wal-Mart's potential impact they can make through awareness campaigns, product innovations, and supply chain transparency requirements. Can we take the leap of faith or do will still remain skeptical? I simply don't know, but look forward to learning about the company's bold strides including the upcoming Live Better Sustainability Sumitt for Wal-Mart employees. Wal-Mart - Love to hate them or hate to love them?

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