10 Minutes with Brittni Furrow

The Inside View

10 Minutes with Brittni Furrow


This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Brittni Furrow, senior director, sustainable supply chain, Walmart.

Bob Langert: How did you find Walmart? Or did Walmart find you?

Brittni Furrow: I worked most closely with Jay Golden (as a student at Arizona State University School of Sustainability). He was the professor that mentored me and, in my first meeting with him, I said, "I'm coming from marketing and I've done a lot of internships and I'm really interested in consumer packaged goods. Nothing happens in business unless you can measure it."

He said, "Well, Walmart just reached out to us and they're interested in the same thing. They're hosting a big summit in Arkansas. And you should come."

Langert: What was your first Walmart experience like?

Furrow: It was the summer right before I started my graduate program when I came with Dr. Golden to Bentonville, Arkansas. Walmart hosted, at the local convention center, its first massive supply-chain sustainability summit.

And I remember at the time Matt Kistler was leading sustainability for Walmart. And he stood on the stage and kicked off this summit. He basically said, "We think we can do better in supply chains and product development to make products that are sustainable. At Walmart, we have the opportunity to democratize that and make it available at lower prices. But we know that we need to agree on what sustainability means in these products. And how do we measure it? And then we can work together, over time."

I was just champing at the bit to get involved. And that began my journey of work for Walmart over the next 10 years.

Langert: Who else has influenced your career?

Furrow: Rand Waddoups. He's a senior director at Walmart. Still here today. He was working in sustainability at the time and I met him at the summit. He said, "It's a unique combination of coming from business and coming from sustainability and environmental studies. You usually find people that are one or the other."

He encouraged me, in addition to getting my master's of science in sustainability, to do the dual program and get my MBA at the same time. And then he said, "We're a retailer. We know how to do retail really well. We believe that sustainability is important to business and the future growth of our company." So, with his guidance, I took the charge. And it was kind of my calling.

Langert: Which is more important in leading sustainability: Business savvy or sustainability smarts?

Furrow: I would say it's not one over the other. What has helped me to become successful at the company is the ability to do both. On the sustainability side, I think companies are looking for subject matter experts that can understand the complexity of the external world, and then bring those most pertinent into core business teams in a way that we can make it digestible for them.

Langert: You've really done so well so quickly, just 10 years out of ASU. What skills would you recommend for people just starting and want to climb the ladder of sustainability leadership?

Furrow: There are two main things that I've learned. One is that people matter in a business. No matter what level you're entering an organization, developing relationships is vital. My first week on the job at Walmart in October 2011, my manager, at the time, Jeff Rice, VP for responsible sourcing, said, "Come on, I'm going to take you over to executive row."

I said, "What are you talking about? I'm a senior manager and I'm doing my first week. I can't meet the executives."

And he said, "No, that's how Walmart works. This is a company that's made up of people. And you need to get to know the people that are running this place." I think that's something that younger generations in the workforce should embrace.

Second, the private sector is operating at a pace and breadth of change and innovation that's never been felt before. In retail, in particular, it's huge. It's a race to the top. And if you're working in sustainability, you have to be able to work at that pace.

Langert: When you wake up in the morning and you're developing strategies for the future of Walmart’s sustainable supply chain, how the heck do you decide what to work on? Walmart has hundreds of thousands of SKUs. You work with so many NGOs. They all want their cause to be a priority.

Furrow: You're right. At Walmart, we face it at a scale unlike most others. I would say, for us, our true north star is to become the most trusted retailer with our customers. That's how we go through our strategy, and to decide what are the issues that we need to be working on that, ultimately, will create that trust with our customer.

So, we take in a variety of perspectives. We leverage heavily the nonprofit community, the scientific community, academics, what's going on with regulators and government policy. Competitive benchmarking. Cost implications. All of that goes into the process and, at the end of the day, we have to say, "What are we going to work on that's going to most materially reduce and avoid risks that might save some of our customers money?" And, "What's going to create greater good for them?" Both of which would, ultimately, drive trust.

Langert: Your travels are far-flung. What's been your favorite trip and why?

Furrow: We were just recently with our banana-buying team down in Costa Rica and had a great opportunity with the buying teams to go visit one of our suppliers.

We had the great opportunity to tour a conservation district that they had set up right beside their farm. When the conservation district started, it had something like two or three monkeys living there. We took a little hike and saw 30 or more monkeys. It was a touching moment that we were there working with our banana farmers on certified banana production and they were able to co-exist with this natural habitat that created a great community for the growing monkey population.

Our banana buyer was new to the desk at the time. And I loved the opportunity for him to see that natural environment and eco-system can co-exist with the banana production. I feel that he will take this experience with him as he continues to buy bananas or pineapples.

These kinds of moments are real for people. A lot of my success is finding the moment to get people into the field where the experience can really change their perspective on understanding the issues. And how they, as a business in the private sector, can actually make a difference.

Langert: What has surprised you most about your career at Walmart and your visions of whatever you thought of 10 years ago?

Furrow: Yes. I'll go beyond those 10 years, and my first memories of Walmart in grade school. My grandmother would watch me after school until my parents got home from work. And she loved to go to Walmart. We would go to Walmart for three hours every afternoon. As you can imagine, as a grade school kid I was like, "Come on, grandma. I want to go play outside." It's so funny that I look back at those memories, now that I've been at Walmart for this long.

I've just been overwhelmingly surprised by the leadership commitment that Walmart has to sustainability. If you name the topic, whether it's health and nutrition, disaster relief, climate change — you pick a topic and I struggle to find any company that's doing more than Walmart. I had no idea when I signed up to work here that Walmart was going to take such a strong leadership role.

Langert: Work is never-ending, isn’t it? You’re a new mom. How do you do it all?

Furrow: We're working in an era today where it's completely possible to be a parent and also have a full-time job. I actually think it makes me better at both. Being a mom has helped me at work, and my work, I think, helps me to be a better mom.

It's just brought a greater meaning for me in the work that I'm doing at Walmart, just to know that I have a son. And he could have children in the future, too. The work that we're doing matters so much today, but it matters so much for the future generations.

That's something in sustainability that we always say but it means something a little bit different for me, now that I have a child of my own.