An open letter to Walmart’s new SVP, sustainability

Ms. Andrea Thomas
Senior Vice President of Sustainability
Walmart Stores, Inc.
Bentonville, AR

Dear Ms. Thomas:

Congratulations!  As a regular Walmart customer, I wish you all the best in your new position. I recognize that you’ve got a huge opportunity to make the world a better place, along with a huge challenge to help the world’s biggest company do more than greenwashing.

I must admit that I feel ambivalent about shopping at your stores. Yes, your prices are low. But I also wonder, as the documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price suggested, whether America is paying too high a cost for your low prices.

And perhaps because I live in a small town, my heart is with local merchants, who are my neighbors. But I recognize that the stuff they sell is mostly from China just as yours is. And your prices and selection are much better. So my loyalties are divided. I want to support my neighbors. But until they offer me more value as a shopper, I’m looking for reasons to like your company better.

It helps to hear that Walmart has done, and is trying to do, an incredible amount of good. I know that Walmart’s efforts to source green inventory have already created huge markets for organic food and other sustainable products.

But when I hear about what Walmart has done for the Earth, it is hard for me to ignore what I’ve heard that the company has done TO peopleunderpaying its associates and failing to provide them with safe working conditions, sucking the life out of mom-and-pop stores on Main Streets across the country, and pressuring manufacturers to locate offshore, destroying good American jobs.

And on the topic of offshoring, what about those sweatshops in China?

I assume that this is not your area of responsibility, and that people issues don’t fall under the sustainability department. But it is difficult for me to feel good about Walmart trying to be green if I am not convinced that it treats people fairly.

However, Walmart’s Sustainability website has given me new hope. I am particularly impressed by just how noble — and how impossible — are your sustainability goals:

  • To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy;
  • To create zero waste;
  • To sell products that sustain people and the environment.

Are these goals genuine? I’m sure you know that it is going to be really tough to do any of this. Beyond tough. Especially for a global corporation of Walmart’s size.

But if you succeed, you will change history.

To have any kind of chance, you’ll need lots of help both in Bentonville and beyond. So, as a customer, a marketing guy, and someone who tries to care about both people and the Earth, I’m going to give you some unsolicited advice. It’s free, so take it for what it’s worth.

Your sustainability goals are ridiculously high. So why not try a ridiculously ambitious plan to  achieve them?

Here that plan: return Walmart to its roots, to the spirit of small-town America, and to a program that the company ran in the 1980s and early 90s but later abandoned: Buy American.

  1. Buying American will help you use 100% renewable energy, because you’ll need less energy for shipping products from factories in China to your US stores. This means your supply chain will use much less energy overall, so your energy goal will be more attainable. Think negawatts (conservation, that is).
  2. Buying American will help you create zero waste, because you’ll need less packaging for shipping, and you won’t be responsible for all the waste created at your suppliers’ plants overseas, which is very hard to monitor (and harder to clean up).
  3. Buying American will help you sell products that sustain people and the environment, because your American-made products will require less energy to make and ship, cutting greenhouse gases while saving limited supplies of liquid fuels for people to drive to work now and for our society to make the transition to a lower-energy transportation system based around rail.

I know that the Wall Street guys who care only about quarterly earnings probably won’t like your plan to Buy American. They’ll say that it will hurt your profits. To win them over, you’ll have to find a way to deal with their short-term concerns. Since your company is expert at phasing in business changes over a two- or five-year period, I’m confident that you can work with suppliers on a gradual timeline to increase their US-made content by a percentage every year that should still be profitable.

And for the more big-picture bottom-line folks, like your boss Mike Duke, here’s what I would say. Buying American might be the only way for Walmart to make profits in the long run.

As the world deals with peak oil and higher energy costs, you’ll need a business model that doesn’t require so many shipping-miles, which are bound to cost more as the years go on.  We know that solar-powered tanker ships are not coming anytime soon. But will soybean biodiesel be able to replace marine fuel at anything less than $200 or $300 a barrel? Researchers say that it is probably not possible to produce large quantities of alternative liquid fuels that cost as little as we now pay for oil.

I’m sorry for Thomas Friedman, but with cheap oil running out, the world is not going to be flat for much longer. And once globalization starts to go backwards, as it surely will in a world of more expensive energy, you’ll need plans to bring your suppliers’ manufacturing back onshore anyway. Why not start now and get ahead of the curve? If you don’t do it, perhaps Target or some European chain like Carrefour will. And then they’ll eat your lunch.

I wish you all the best. I’m not sure I would want your job right now. But here’s a thought that might make you feel better.  If you adopt a bold plan to make Walmart truly green through Buying American, I know you’ll make millions of friends very quickly. Especially in today’s economy.

Creating jobs here by making stuff here is clearly the right thing for America. Cutting pollution and saving energy is the right thing for the Earth and for our way of life. And cutting your huge energy liability is the right thing for Walmart.

For my part, I’ll make you a promise. If you announce that Walmart will start Buying American again, I will become your most rabid fan and active (unpaid) ambassador. I will no longer feel ambivalent about shopping at my local superstore. And I will proudly let my family, friends, and anyone who will listen know that a miracle has happened.

One of the most powerful organizations in human history has decided to help save America. To help save the Earth. And maybe even to help save industrial civilization.

Be a hero. I’ll back you up. And lots of others will too.

Best regards,

Erik Curren
Staunton, Virginia