As someone who leads the drive toward sustainability every single day at work, I’ve been thinking a lot about our commitment as we wrap up Earth Month 2012.
Just how do we sum up our sustainability philosophy at a company that is now in 27 countries? I think this says it well, and also sums up my own personal philosophy about sustainability: “Set crazy goals, and work hard every day to achieve them.”
Walmart proudly set some of the craziest sustainability goals in the business world. In 2005, we laid out three goals, without knowing when or even how we would achieve them. They are to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain our resources and the environment.
Really no one outside of Walmart thought we could get anywhere close to zero waste. And 100 percent renewable energy? There was no model for even how to begin. We didn’t even have a good definition of renewable energy.
Frankly, there were plenty of people inside Walmart who thought we couldn’t do it, either. That’s just the kind of challenge I love.
So, where to begin? How do you set goals that are going to challenge and push you to do better work every single day? And what about the risk? What if you fall short – or worse – fail? What will people say?
Whenever you make big changes, there is also a big potential for failure. That makes some companies – and individuals – avoid risk and take the safest route.
So you might think that arriving at Walmart’s crazy, aspirational goals would have taken a lot of time and conversation and many, many meetings. But that’s not how it happened.
Instead, just two months after Hurricane Katrina, we announced the goals that would lead us for years to come. That moment was actually very controversial within the company. Many people didn’t agree Walmart should be so bold and move so quickly, especially without a clear plan.
I think that’s why I have found a home at Walmart. My personal philosophy is very similar. When you set big goals, you don’t have to have all the answers. You may not have any answers. It’s OK to say, “I’m just wading in here and trying to figure this out along the way.”
So has the risk paid off? Yes, but we still have a long way to go, including with renewable energy. After all, those were some really crazy goals we set.
But take zero waste, for example. Seven years ago, that was promising the impossible. Today, we now keep nearly 81 percent of waste from our U.S. operations out of the landfill.
Getting to this point has required a lot of innovation, conversation and infrastructure development. But today, we are recycling cardboard, paper, aluminum, plastic bags and nearly three dozen other items.
We are donating food that goes unsold to food banks around the country. And last year, we gave 338 million pounds of food to hunger relief organizations — the equivalent of 250 million meals. Food and other organic products that cannot be donated are now being converted to compost, fuel and animal feed.
To give you a sense of what this means for our environment:
In 2011, this waste diversion saved more than 11.8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, the equivalent of taking more than 2 million cars off the road.
And it has also been good for our business, which is something we speak about frequently because we want other companies to see that they can afford to be sustainable, too. In fact, it really does help the bottom line.
Walmart’s zero-landfill waste program returned more than $231 million to our business last year through a combination of increased recycling revenue and decreased expenses.
Our organics reduction program, which finds nonlandfill solutions for our organic waste, also created 1,600 jobs with service providers and processors who serve Walmart.
When it comes to waste, it’s clear we’ve picked all of the low-hanging fruit. So now, we are faced with how to eliminate the remaining 19.1 percent of our waste, generally from our restrooms and parking lots. We may need new technology. We may need new partnerships. We don’t know the answers yet, but we’re working every day to find solutions.