August 23, 2007

Big Business = Evil?

[This is a longer version of a response I'm posting on Huffington Post to a fairly ridiculous column about how evil former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach is for working with Wal-Mart (as featured in Fast Company this week). See the debate here ]

It's far more likely Mr. Schechter is living in Wonderland than Adam Werbach. I wish the world were as black and white as he makes it out to be, but it's much more complicated than that. Equating big business, and Wal-Mart, with evil — and labeling anyone who chooses to try and make the world's largest company more socially responsible as bad news — is too easy and incredibly misguided. Does Wal-Mart have some serious issues? Certainly. The company has big problems on the social side of the sustainability ledger, and its core business model, dependent entirely on low prices, is not sustainable for people or planet (an opinion I've shared with some of Wal-Mart's management). But just throwing up our hands and refusing to work with big business is not just illogical, it actually dooms us.

What's the alternative here? Should we only buy from and work for and with sustainable companies? Well, that would be nice, and I pray that in the future, the options are there, but for now, that would leave us with exactly zero companies. I can assure you after years of research for my book Green to Gold, there's no such thing as a sustainable company yet. Some are on their way, like Interface, Patagonia, and IKEA. But we can't afford to wait for the big companies doing business the old way to just wither and die. We must change the way the world produces goods, eats, shops, works, consumes, and lives and we'll only get there in partnership with some of the biggest organizations out there (in part by making the very defendable case that it's good for business to be green), and with some fundamental shifts in our market economy (such as...the prices of goods need to reflect their real impact on the world -- $20/gallon gas anyone?).

Companies are, like it or not, the most effective means we have for making things to wear, eat, and live with and matching them with people's needs (how much we consume is a big part of the discussion of course, but we all have some footprint no matter how green our lifestyle). Like it or not, when the history of green business is written (which I hope will come in the form of a digital or low-impact book available to the billions of people living a high-quality life and not scratched on a few palm fronds by the few remaining inhabitants of a climate-change flooded Waterworld), that history will be in large part about Wal-Mart. The company's environmental actions are very real — just ask the thousands of suppliers, large and small that have been "asked" to reduce packaging, use less fossil fuel, and change the way they make things.

Environmentalists (and I wear both hats -- business and environment -- comfortably) have to support the good things happening, even if they are coming from a seemingly unlikely place. The biggest companies in the world are taking environmental issues seriously, and the largest environmental NGOs are all working with industry closely. These relationships are a good thing. If we don't change the big guys, we won't make it.

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