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). say 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.”
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.