Recently a guy who is trying to sell a book about Wal-Mart’s supposed “Green” heroism, Edward Humes, has written in various places about the giant retailer’s eco-friendly innovations and efficiencies. The tone has been, “Hey, believe it or not, this mass merchant practices sustainability!”
For example, in an op-ed last week for the Los Angeles Times, he wrote:
This isn’t Al Gore saying green is good for the economy; it’s Wal-Mart, which puts the discussion in a very different place. Yet progressives so revile the retailer, and the idea of a greener Wal-Mart generates so much skepticism among environmentalist organizations and their donors, that they have failed to capitalize on this golden opportunity to push through a green agenda for America. They’d rather lose the battle, it seems, than say something positive about their traditional enemy, even though Wal-Mart is using its vast scale and power to do something other than bully suppliers, crush competitors, bust unions, outsource American industry and bury local businesses.
It’s time to rethink this position. Since 2005, Wal-Mart’s “evil empire” has lowered the carbon footprint of its stores by more than 10 percent and of its trucking fleet by several times that amount.
The story Humes tells in his book Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution, is about the influence that environmentalist corporate adviser Jib Ellison had on former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott. A former wilderness expeditionist, river guide and author of a manual on whitewater rafting, Ellison founded Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting, and was introduced to Scott by the son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, Rob. According to Humes, Ellison believes “businesses should strive to become sustainable because it will bolster their bottom lines. The most sustainable business, the cleanest, most energy-efficient, least wasteful company, will have the competitive advantage—not just in a distant, utopian future, but now.”
Humes wrote about one of Ellison’s rafting trips in which other corporate leaders’ desired to glean wisdom from Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of sustainability, Matt Kistler, who talked “about world population closing in on nine billion people in the next four decades, of nations with virtually no consumer culture a few years ago now witnessing the evolution of burgeoning, big-spending middle classes.” Such a sudden, widespread development of consumerism – so says Humes – is too much for the world’s resources of raw materials, fuel, energy, water and air, and Wal-Mart “unthinkingly set this scenario into motion decades ago with its outsourced, low-price, buy-more imperative.” Now, apparently, Wal-Mart “gets it” thanks to Ellison’s ability to get through to Lee Scott in 2005.
Humes’s book, released last month, has not appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list, but he is trying hard to get fellow Green believers interested. In an obvious effort to pump up sales and the company’s expertise, late last month he produced for Huffington Post, “Eco Lessons from Wal-Mart: 10 Tips from the World’s Biggest Company.” You might think –considering the source is so colossal that has its very own sustainability executive, with an entire book devoted to its environmental acumen — that there would be insights and revelations that no one has ever heard before.
But all Humes delivered were the mundane pointers you hear from all the eco-activists. “So do what Wal-Mart does,” he wrote, “use energy-efficient lighting. Plant shady trees near your house or business. Insulate your attic and, if you have a flat roof, paint it white. Clean the filters in your refrigerator, heater and AC.” But there were also nonsensical, nannyist, or ill-considered ideas Humes offered, such as:
- “So cut out the disposable water bottles and use the tap and a glass. Make your own coffee instead of all those disposable latte cups.” Really? Are those mandates that Wal-Mart imposes on its employees?
- “So when Wal-Mart wants to sell green, it emphasizes how sustainable choices are often healthy choices: organic baby food and clothes, for instance, are pesticide free and therefore healthier for babies.” First, I don’t ever recall a sign at Wal-Mart (I do shop there frequently) that says “buy this instead of this” for those reasons. And are there really pesticides in the non-organic baby food that Wal-Mart sells?
- “Switching out light bulbs will garner visible savings….” If that’s true, informed Americans would not be stockpiling the traditional incandescent light bulbs that Thomas Edison invented before the government outlaws them in the next couple of years. But maybe Wal-Mart is using its power of size to get a great deal on CFLs or LEDs so it helps the company’s bottom line. Will current CEO Mike Duke’s environmentalist vision lead them to sell the new, legal bulbs (which now cost as much as 32 times that of the Edison bulbs) at a price their customers can afford?
And you could just picture Humes wagging his finger as he wrote:
Today’s Wal-Mart shoppers are not particularly motivated to buy green. But their kids are, and Wal-Mart is listening. Wal-Mart is betting that the most planet-friendly retailer will win the future. So if you don’t want to spend your senior years trying to explain to your grandkids why you didn’t do more to save the planet, it’s time to get busy.
As NLPC reported recently, with seven consecutive quarters (now eight) of same-store sales declines, Wal-Mart appears to be losing its “bet.” But when you’ve got a whitewater rafting naturalist, a former Al Gore aide (Leslie Dach), and a Paul Ehrlich population-bomb alarmist (Kistler) as three of your sustainability gurus, and a scolding book writer lecturing the public, why listen to your (former) customers?
Paul Chesser is associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and is executive director for American Tradition Institute.
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