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Sustainability lessons from Wal-Mart’s former CEO

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The corporate sustainability realm has few conversations that do not eventually turn to Wal-Mart Stores. It’s nearly impossible to be neutral about the retail giant, whether it be over its impact on local business, procurement, employment and health care practices, prescription-drug offerings or its sustainability efforts that dig deep into the supply chain.

And so, it was fitting that Lee Scott, the former CEO who led Wal-Mart’s embrace of CSR, was a speaker Tuesday at the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy’s Energy Innovation Summit. Sustainability is not necessarily a core part of every project ARPA-E helps fund, but each share the principles of improving on current practices, boosting efficiencies and succeeding economically.

Scott ran through the company’s sustainability legacy and recent developments, as well as the philosophy that drove internal adoption and external justification. Many of his statements, taken generally, would fit well within the framework of best practices for being a good corporate citizen. Some of his statements:

  • In reference to ARPA-E: “We need to fund efforts that touch the boundaries of current understanding, and only then will we hit upon the innovations.”
  • Fluidic Energy owes a debt to Wal-Mart’s CSR push, and is “a sustainability startup.”
  • Successful sustainability efforts require simultaneous top-down and bottom-up approaches, with executive buy-in a key early step.
  • Sustainability “must be sustainable,” says Scott. “We built sustainability into the business. … It doesn’t go away” because the economy suffers or because management changes.
  • “Don’t get trapped by false tradeoffs” — the idea that doing good necessarily means giving up something of quality.
  • “Sustainability really was about taking out waste” — less packaging and energy, and fewer middlemen, which helps make the economic case for green products. “It is often less expensive to make that product sustainable.”
  •  “What we learned at Wal-Mart was to listen, and learn. And eventually, you might get a chance to lead.”

Wal-Mart can certainly improve, and it would probably not take much to find an area where the company continues to lack. But one wonders, are companies falling short on sustainability and CSR asking themselves, “Why aren’t we more like Wal-Mart?” And if not, why not?