The Walmart Chronicles: Inside the Belly of the Beast

I was in Walmart's Home Office this past February, waiting to be a part of the company's greenhouse gas announcement that day. Sitting in one of the tiny, spare rooms -- where suppliers meet with Walmart buyers to try to sell their products -- I was keenly aware of the paradox that is Walmart and my experience working with the company over the last five years. Despite a nice coat of blue paint, the supplier rooms have paper-thin walls so you can hear everything going on in the next room. And it all amounts to this: Walmart is still all about selling "stuff" as efficiently (some might say as cheaply) as possible.

But then something happened that would never have happened five years ago. In fact, I could hardly believe what I heard: It was a supplier pitching his product on its environmental attributes and explaining why he'd chosen post-consumer recycled content paper packaging and not plastic packaging (because the plastic couldn't be easily recycled most places in the U.S.). That is one tiny example of the reality of "the Walmart effect" on the environment.

I run the Walmart program for Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). In the course of my 13-plus years at EDF, I've worked with UPS to redesign its overnight shipping packaging, and FedEx to develop its next-generation truck. But nothing could prepare me for Walmart. How do you prepare for working with 2 million associates (as Walmart employees are called), or 100,000 suppliers? How do you prepare for that challenge -- and that opportunity?

This column, "The Walmart Chronicles," gives voice to EDF's sustainability work with Walmart and will provide my colleagues and my insider perspective on the retailer. EDF has been working with Walmart on its sustainability initiative for over five years. With our small office in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered, you might say we're in the "belly of the beast."

The truth is, in many ways, Walmart's not all that beastly. The company does like to throw its weight around with suppliers, but when you're an environmentalist whose goal is to use Walmart's market clout to transform the retail supply chain, that's a good thing. And from the start of our work with Walmart, we believed that this beast could be a powerful force for good for the planet. We believe this is the case even more so today, after working with the company in China, around its climate commitment and on renewable energy. The leverage for change that is possible with Walmart is too big of an opportunity to pass up.

It can be a little surreal to walk the halls of Walmart's Home Office (as its headquarters building is officially called), now covered with environmental signs everywhere -- even in the executive suite. But it gives us unique access to help Walmart be truly transformational around environmental sustainability. As big and powerful as Walmart is, it would have a much harder time meeting its sustainability goals without groups like EDF to push it on numerous fronts. Our presence in Walmart's home town also allows us to help shape the company's goals, implement the work that needs to get done and, most importantly -- as an organization that takes no money from Walmart or any of our corporate partners -- hold Walmart accountable.

We've got a great team in Bentonville and, by the way, we're looking to add to it.

The good news is that whoever we hire will work every day with Michelle Mauthe Harvey, a whirling dervish of energy with an MBA, who can turn on her Southern drawl in an instant and who anchors our Bentonville office. On a typical day, Michelle is working on issues ranging from chemicals in products to supply chain transparency to sustainable agriculture (read her recent blog post on Walmart's sustainable agriculture announcement.)

Because she's got an ID badge that allows her access to all Walmart offices, Michelle can place herself in the thick of things. Recently, she gave input on the prosaic -- acceptable options for restroom and parking lot waste to drive toward Walmart's zero-waste goal -- and the profound -- implementing and expanding thin-film solar systems across Walmart stores and warehouses. "Working on site with Walmart is one of the most interesting and challenging experiences of my career," Michelle told me recently. I couldn't agree more.

It's true that most people can't point to Bentonville on a map, but at this moment -- when our Congress has taken a pass on climate policy -- Bentonville may represent the center of America's environmental movement.