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Book review: a force of nature

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ForceofNature hc final coverJust finished a book (thank you, VPL on-line collection) that was a most satisfying read. It’s one of these environmental books that make you feel there’s hope.

A pretty tall order, given that the book, Edward Humes’s Force of Nature, is about Wal-Mart and how the company’s management put the company on a sustainable path. Now this is hard to swallow if you’re any kind of environmental or social activist; Wal-Mart is the devil that has caused misery, created poverty, eviscerated downtowns, and so on.

Humes, a master of the telling anecdote, doesn’t gloss over Wal-Mart’s misdeeds, which is why the book is a bit of a tour de force when it comes to convincing the reader that the company is not only sincere, but effective. How it happened is remarkable, and it is as much the story of white-water rafter turned consultant Jib Ellison and his company Blu Skye, as it is that of Wal-Mart and his then CEO Lee Scott.

In fact, it is so interesting – and controversial – that I’ve been thinking of how to assign the book as class reading. The book embodies one of the best, easy to understand, and interesting overview of sustainability, its principles, problems and practical applications, that I’ve come across.

The process of how Wal-Mart got there is really interesting, and makes up the core of the book. But since the proof is in the pudding, I’ll quote some figures from the book:
• Carbon emissions from trucks, stores and other operations have gone from 60 tonnes per $1m in sales in 2005, to 50 in 2008
• The efficiency of the truck fleet has increased by 60% compared to 2005
• The stores recycle or reuse 64% of its garbage
• All personal computers abide by European standards, which are more stringent than North America’s
• All TVs sold in US and Japan are 67% more energy efficient than in 2008

A remarkable performance, especially given the company relentless pursuit of low prices; sustainability is seen as eliminating waste through the supply chain, with the belief that doing so pays for itself. As Humes puts it,

there’s no handbook for how Wal-Mart and Blu Skye set this sustainability quest in motion, but if there were, there would be a few simple rules:
• Start with the hire-fire guy: a company has to be sustainable from the top down
• Sustainability must be part of every employee’s mission; relegate it to its own department, and it will fail
• Waste = money
• Carbon = energy = money
• Burst the bubble: talk to activists and environmentalists, consider their criticisms and advice (it’s free)
• Green is what the next generation of consumers care about

Humes concludes, in the epilogue

Despite all the good works that Wal-Mart (and Nike and Procter & Gamble and others) have done on the environmental front, such corporations as we know them cannot be sustainable. Yet, paradoxically, the answer to another important question – has Wal-Mart led the business world toward a new age of sustainability? – is yes.

In fact, Humes is convincing enough in his book (he is the recipient of a Pulitzer, after all) that conservative reviewers took issue with the book as well as with Wal-Mart’s turn-around. For instance, Angela Logomasini, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise, writes a scathing review with comments such as:

Never questioning the hype, Mr. Humes explains how Wal-Mart solicited the advice of green-product activist William McDonough, who urged the company to back away from supposed perilous products such as carpets backed by polyvinyl chloride (PVC), aka vinyl. Such carpet, Mr. McDonough told Wal-Mart executives, posed cancer risks and was too difficult to recycle. However, there is little proof that cancer is caused by trace exposures to chemicals found in vinyl…

To have the climate deniers and enviro-bashers thrash your book: that is high praise indeed! Read the book, and if you’re like me you’ll go from a skeptic to a convert. Do I love Wal-Mart now? Uh, no. But do I think that business and private enterprise can be part of the solution? With some caveats (Volkswagen comes to mind…), maybe, yeah.

Edward Humes, 2011. Force of Nature: the unlikely story of Wal-Mart’s green revolution and how it could transform business and save the world. Harper Collins.

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Written by enviropaul

October 18, 2015 at 11:41 am

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