wal-mart ties sustainability to employee well-being. i can (gulp) respect that.

July 16, 2009

in health communication,wellness

yesterday, wal-mart announced their new product sustainability index. the index is the latest in wal-mart’s effort to use their major heft to protect the environment and garner goodwill (or vice versa). walmartsay what you want about wal-mart — and i have on more than one occasion, particularly when considering their historical HR practices, sloppy stores, and lousy customer service, and even this recent initiative – one can’t deny that their size and influence will bring attention to the topic.

a few years ago i was part of a skeptical conference audience listening to a wal-mart rep speak about the company’s decision to make sustainability a central part of their strategy. as he continued speaking to us, i found myself (begrudgingly) swayed. what really got me was when this gentleman admitted that — hey, we’re wal-mart. we’re going to be trashed no matter what we do, so we’re going to swing for the fences on this one. i can respect that.

my interest was particularly piqued when i read about wal-mart’s personal sustainability project (PSP), a customizable program that brings their sustainability initiative straight to their associates. this program was designed with the help of a former president of the sierra club and kicked off in 2006, using your typical cascade approach. here’s how it works. volunteer PSP captains participate in train-the-trainer sessions, then bring the message back to the store. associates decide whether or not they want to participate; so do whole stores. those who choose to participate pick one change they want to make and concentrate on it for 4–7 weeks. they’re supported by company-provided materials, the PSP captain, and fellow associates. here’s the cool part: the one thing they choose to work on has to “positively impact the environment, their communities, and their own personal health and well-being, as well as the health and habits of their families.

bingo!

by making it optional, customizable, individual — and tied to the earth — wal-mart created an internal program that mirrors their business strategy and conveys a very positive message to the community, customer, and press. is it doing good things for their associates and the community? yes, you can’t argue that. they have lots and lots of powerful stories about pounds of items recycled and collectively lost (184,315), miles biked and swum (1,109,421), thousands who quit smoking (19,924), and more who were moved to make a difference.

leveraging the very people those of us who hate wal-mart most identify with — their associates — as their sustainability spokesperson is just smart. does that make the PSP, like the product sustainability index, just good PR? intentional capitalization on the world’s current sustainability conversation? or could it be using their size for good, not only evil? a terrific example of aligning strategy and people practices? helping their associates make positive changes that benefit them personally? how about — all of the above.

i can respect that.

f

[image: darwinbell]

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Bednar July 16, 2009 at 4:36 pm

i do wonder how wal-mart customers will respond (or won't) to this — especially in small town, usa. such interesting news. doesn't seem to be in line w/ their customer profile, but i guess that's what they're trying to change. coming on the heels of their rebranding, it makes sense.

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Greg Matthews July 16, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Fran, there's so much to respond to here that I don't really know where to start. On a very personal level, I (like you) don't really *want* to have reasons to like Wal-Mart. But it's pretty hard not to like this, on a lot of levels.
First, it actually appears to be fairly altruistic. I share Mark Bednar's skepticism that this kind of initiative will be of interest to Wal-Mart's customer base, or will cause people aren't current customers (e.g., me) to shop there. And its nice to see a great big company do something because its the right thing to do.
Second, as someone who's very focused on emphasizing personal responsibility in health, I love that WM has made individual health a part of the initative.
Third, as a guy who's into business transformation through collaboration and the empowerment of employees and customers, the fact that this is a voluntary program (I'm assuming that it's *really* voluntary and not one of those things that you're *expected* to do as an employee) is very attractive and powerful. This is a living example of what social business ought to be like.
And finally, the closet anarchist in me likes the fact that WalMart, as a non-governmental agency, is exercising influence in ways we normally think of as governmental purview. Just as businesses and economies are being transformed by the social revolution, I think that we're going to begin looking at government differently too. What happens when enough businesses get together to make government irrelevant for any purposes beyond national defense?

Anyway, thanks for the insightful piece . . . sure got my head buzzing on a lot of topics! BTW, you're on my preferred reading list now. ;-)

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gradock July 17, 2009 at 9:32 am

Would like to Add “AND LAYING CONCRETE HIGHWAYS” to Gregg Masters Comment “..to make government irrelevant for any purposes beyond national defense.” Excellent Observations Fran!

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Mark Bednar July 17, 2009 at 9:56 am

the ripple effect this will have, too, is unbelievable. i've heard now, too, more about the external green initiative w/ regard to tagging items that are sustainable. you're going to have wal-mart suppliers going green b/c it's good for business. and i'm surprised, like everyone, at how planned and strategic they are w/ this (aligning internal w/ external initatives). prop me up in line w/ the rest of you who are begrudgingly saying good work, wal-mart. now i'm going to go wash my mouth out w/ method-brand soap i just bought from target.

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fran July 20, 2009 at 7:58 am

mark, it’s exciting to see how this effort will alter our creation/purchasing. i haven’t kept up with how their push into organics has gone. have you?

greg, now i’m the one to say there’s so much to respond to here! i also would love to know more about how truly voluntary this is, how it’s being embedded into the org and community, and so on. i have tried to connect with wal-mart reps to no luck. anyone?! and if you can imagine a day when businesses supply the social services government does today, i want to talk with you!

gradock, so you’re looking for businesses to be shovel-ready?!

f

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