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Walmart's Green Business Summit in Vancouver

“If you’re not willing to do something different and do it first, then you’re not leading.”  David Cheesewright, CEO, Walmart Canada

Last week I attended the Walmart Green Business Summit in downtown Vancouver. I must admit to having mixed feelings about the event as I arrived – though I’ve followed Walmart’s remarkable foray into sustainability, I have remained one of those optimistic but slightly sceptical observers. What became obvious right away at the event, though, was that Walmart is serious about “greening” their operations and that they have an enormous potential to influence many others to get serious about it too. There were over 350 people in the room – most of them senior business executives. While there were many experienced sustainability experts and practitioners in the room, there were also many organizations represented that I’ve personally never seen at such events in the past. Walmart is obviously a draw – especially to the many businesses for whom Walmart is a big customer.

These senior executives spent a day learning about sustainability, about good practices of others, and working together to talk through issues for their businesses – especially as they relate to the need for collaboration. There were competitors in the room – including some of Walmart’s competitors – talking about the difference of the sustainability challenge being that it requires unprecedented co-operation among competitors and throughout industries and value chains.

I was especially thrilled by the reaction to David Suzuki’s keynote address. Early in his remarks Dr. Suzuki noted that something has changed, “I am now being invited to meetings and boardrooms where only a few short years ago they would have barred the door and said, “don’t let that bugger in.” He went on to give a powerful description of the big challenge we face and a forceful rebuke of business as usual, including the notion of a triple bottom line where the social, environmental and economic dimensions are more or less of equal importance and proportion. To hear all the business leaders throughout the rest of the day repeatedly saying things like “as Dr. Suzuki said earlier, the economy depends on the environment” was music to the ears.

There were grumblings among some participants about whether Walmart’s senior-level commitment has actually filtered down to the people with whom they do business and for whom price still seems to be the primary (or only) concern. And there are of course many who doubt Walmart’s willingness to look at sustainability in a holistic way that includes the social dimension and challenges some fundamentals of their business model. Certainly, a quiet observer like myself with the lens of a holistic framework for strategic sustainability could see some gaps in their understanding and approach.

But despite these grumblings and challenges, I think it would have been hard for anyone at this event to question the seriousness with which Walmart’s leadership (including its impressive Canadian CEO David Cheesewright) has taken on the challenge of achieving its 3 big (and very clear) sustainability goals: zero waste, 100% renewable energy, and selling sustainable products. David Cheesewright said that sustainability was an area where Walmart’s size could be a big advantage and where they could make a big difference. Seeing all these people in this room focused on this topic, I must admit that I agree. It will be very interesting to see what they do with the leadership role they have articulated for themselves.

 

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