Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: Force of Nature (on the greening of Walmart)

Force of Nature: How Wal-Mart Started a Green Business Revolution-and Why It Might Save the World by Edward Humes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a lot of reasons to hate Walmart, and while Humes skims over them he doesn't ignore them. The company puts smaller stores out of business, squeezes its suppliers so that it's tough to make a profit (but it's tough to say no to the biggest retailer in the world), doesn't pay its employees a living wage, faces more gender discrimination lawsuits than I can count... and the list goes on.

But over the past half decade Walmart has also made some astonishing strides toward greening its business.

The sheer economies of scale are astounding. Walmart has enough locations and employs enough people that simply turning off the lights in the vending machines in employee break rooms saves $1.5 million per year.

Any small change the company makes has a huge impact. So when Walmart decides to reduce packaging, make vehicles more fuel efficient, use organic cotton, or make other changes, it can generate millions of dollars in savings and/or have far-reaching effects on the environment.

Things get even more interesting when the company starts looking at ways to encourage suppliers to make their industries (dairy, fish, clothing, electronics, and others) more sustainable.

Of course, the fact that Walmart can have such an impact is also evidence that the company is by its very existence bad for the environment. Walmart and other national and international retail chains depend on shipping supplies and finished products across huge distances in huge quantities -- and many of those items are things that nobody really needs in the first place.

It's nice to think that the solution is to end the era of big-box retailers and go back to mom and pop stores, but that doesn't seem very likely given the current state of affairs, and Humes paints a pretty good portrait of a company using its clout to generate the next-best thing: a world where mass produced products aren't simply stocked on store shelves as if they sprung from the ground already finished. Instead, retailers like Walmart are taking an active role in determining the environmental impact of everything they sell -- and soon may be taking more steps to ensure that consumers also have access to that information to help make better informed choices.

I'm not sure that I'm any more likely to shop at Walmart after reading this book, but it does make me feel slightly better about the direction our consumption-based economy is headed.

My carbon footprint is smaller than most people's. I don't own a car. I work from home. I don't eat meat. And for the past year I've been buying most of my produce from local sources at farmers markets.

But it will take a lot more than my personal choices to change the world... and while Walmart and stores like it are certainly part of the problem, some are also starting to become part of the solution... to a degree.

Humes could probably spend a little more time in this book discussing the areas where Walmart has fallen short of its environmental promises -- and in other areas as well. But he does a good job of describing the process of Walmart's greening since 2004 by putting human faces on the story and profiling the people that are making things happen... or at least trying to... or at least saying they're trying too...

View all my reviews

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