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Good OM Reading: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution

May 17, 2011

It was clear that Wal-Mart was taking a leadership stand in sustainability when we wrote the Supplement 5 case study Environmental Sustainability at Wal-Mart 2 years ago. However,  an excellent  book called Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution, by Edward Humes (Harper Business, 265 pages), has just been published that will bring the case alive to your students. If you are to read one book on the company that is leading this unlikely second industrial revolution, this would be it.

That’s because Wal-Mart, long the target of environmentalists who hate its big-box footprint,  and others who feel it has destroyed small town businesses by the 1,000’s, has created nothing less than a green revolution. And as we see in Force of Nature, it is spreading this unprecedented makeover worldwide.  But the real story behind the changes at one of the world’s least earth-friendly companies is when river-guide turned consultant, Jib Ellison, enters CEO Lee Scott’s office.

Ellison singlehandedly persuades Scott that sustainability isn’t just for tree huggers–that it really meant eliminating waste and saving money. Hitting Wal-Mart at just the right moment, when it was plagued by bad PR and a slew of lawsuits, Ellison  convinced the firm’s execs that building sustainability into the business would create a powerful competitive edge. Wal-Mart did not embark, as the author says, on this course out of a sense of doing-good, but started with the attitude that it would give a PR boost…and also be profitable. It also was meant to appeal to a new generation of female shoppers who would leave for Target if Wal-Mart did not embrace sustainability.

Just a few of the recent changes: reducing packaging sizes (saving $3.4 billion a year while reducing trash), installing electric generators in refrigerated trucks (so they don’t have to idle overnight), donating 127 million pounds of food (that would otherwise be destroyed) to food banks, cutting printouts at stores (and saving 350 million pieces of paper and $20 million), making organic, earth-friendly, and natural products widely available, and forcing 100,000 manufacturers who supply products Wal-Mart sells to become more sustainable!

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