July 28, 2009

Wal-Mart Asks, Where's the Beef (From)?

[Post #2 of 3 on Wal-Mart's activity in the last couple of months. This appeared at Harvard Business Online and then on BusinessWeek online]

In the last month, what event had the greatest potential for changing business as usual forever? If you said the passage of the climate change bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, it would be hard to argue with you. But I'm going to make the case for another event as the most influential (or at least a very close second): the Wal-Mart Sustainability Summit held in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Following the model of the historic meeting Wal-Mart held for its Chinese suppliers last year, the President of Wal-Mart Brazil, Héctor Núñez, decided to hold a similar event for his suppliers. (Full disclosure: I was hired to give a keynote about the greening of business for larger context setting, but I have no consulting relationship with Wal-Mart).

Speakers at the event included the Brazilian Minister of the Environment and the director of Greenpeace Brazil, an organization that just a few weeks ago produced a damning report titled "Slaughtering the Amazon" that points the finger at the cattle industry as the primary cause of deforestation (growing soy is another leading cause). I had an interesting talk with Hector about his conversations with the aggressive NGO. He commented that "when you talk to Greenpeace, it's hard to argue with what they're saying."

But, I thought, arguing with the environmentalist perspective is exactly what business leaders normally do. But the world is changing fast. In fact, Hector's speech at the summit, with its soaring rhetoric about global environmental damage, made him sound more like a Greenpeace activist than a hard-nosed manager.

At the Summit, Wal-Mart announced significant goals and mandates to tackle some of the thorniest environmental and social problems in the world. Wal-Mart Brazil will now, in essence, ensure that its supply chain uses...

— No companies that employ slave labor; "forced" labor (read, slavery) is a rampant problem in developing countries.

— No soybeans sourced from illegally deforested areas; 20% of the world's carbon emissions (and 70% of Brazil's emissions) come from burning down trees.

No beef sourced from any newly cleared Amazonian land; globally, deforestation emits more carbon than all vehicles. Brazil and Indonesia are at the heart of this enormous challenge.

[For the rest of this column, please see BusinessWeek]

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