Citizen WalMart

It was not long ago that nobody interested in making a better world would ever have a good thing to say about WalMart, the giant American retailer, and owner of Asda in the UK. Yet speaker after speaker praised WalMart at the Economist conference on corporate citizenship that Matthew has just moderated in San Francisco.

First up, Ray Anderson, chairman of eco-friendly carpet company, Interface, told how he had met WalMart’s boss, Lee Scott, shortly after he had decided to change the firm’s culture to embrace the fight against climate change. We describe this conversion in the book, in the chapter on The Good Company. Anderson said a year later he again met with Scott, who told him that when he had talked about culture change he had no idea what a powerful force he was unleashing. Anderson’s book, Mid-Course Correction, about how he got the eco bug at the age of 60 is highly recommended.

Then WalMart’s Personal Sustainability Project for employees was lauded by Haas Business School professor, Kellie McElhaney, who has just published an interesting book, Just Good Business. She waved a pack of cards, each containing tricky environmental questions, that WalMart has given to employees as educational tools. Another speaker pointed out that over 500,000 WalMart employees are now participating in the PSP.

Yet another speaker, whjose own corporate foundation giving is expected to decline this year, noted enviously that WalMart has just announced that its annual corporate giving will rise from around $300m to $400m. So much for the recession.

Finally, the closing keynote speaker, Jeffrey Hollender, boss of eco-friendly household products firm, Seventh Generation, said that, after three years of conversations with the company and especially chief executive Scott, he had decided to reverse his ban on letting Seventh Generation products be sold at WalMart. The firm still has a massive negative footprint, but it is “now moving on the right trajectory”, said Hollender. Ultimately, he forsees deep tensions between WalMart’s newfound environmentalism and its commitment to “every day low prices”. But, for now, it is getting better fast. Moreover, he says, WalMart is the only big retailer he knows that would let him criticise them in public without getting upset. He has even offered to go on the WalMart board to help it work through its remaining eco-challenges – an offer politely turned down by Scott. Still, now Scott has announced his departure, his firm’s culture well on its way to being transformed, perhaps the new boss will welcome a veteran green activist in the boardroom? Or, less happily, will a change at the top bring this culture change to an abrupt halt? Let’s hope not.