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The Green Wave Marches On: Wal-Mart in China

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You might think that the powerful green wave changing business will subside in a recession. True, some investments might wait a bit, but most companies I talk to are pushing ahead with the sustainability agenda. One important example is Wal-Mart, which doesn't seem to be slowing down.

I recently attended the Wal-Mart Sustainability Summit in Beijing. There are times you know you're watching something special. The point of the meeting was to bring Wal-Mart's Chinese suppliers (some 900 of them) together to hear Wal-Mart's sustainability agenda and the specific goals for the company's biggest supply partner. To put the relationship in context, if Wal-Mart were a country, it would be China's sixth or seventh largest trading partner (clearly the scale of both China and Wal-Mart is shocking).

After some opening talks that were fairly typical for these kinds of events, things took a historic turn. Wal-Mart's Vice Chairman, Mike Duke, explained what the event was really about. His "bad cop" talk covered a range of issues, and later CEO Lee Scott elaborated on some of the themes, but the critical discussion laid out what the world's biggest company was going to expect of its suppliers. Here are a few of main the commitments/ statements:

Supplier commitments: All suppliers will sign new agreements indicating compliance with environmental laws, starting with Chinese suppliers to the U.S., UK, and Canada in just 3 months. Over the next 3 years, all suppliers globally will sign.

Audits: Wal-Mart will "strengthen" its surprise and third-party audit program

Supplier goals: The top 200 suppliers will achieve 20% energy efficiency improvement, and most importantly, "By 2012, all suppliers that we buy from directly should source 95% of product from companies that have the highest ratings in audits."

Product goals and quality: Zero defective merchandise returns by 2012. Lee Scott connected quality to sustainability in very funny, specific terms: "Customers want a sock that will not fall down even if washed."

Transparency: Suppliers must reveal the name and location of every factory they use to make a product, as early as November for apparel, then home goods, toys, and others by the end of 2009. As Duke said, "If you sell us tennis shoes, we expect you to know and tell us where it was made and which sub-contractors were involved...If you don't pose these questions, our customers will...in this age of YouTube there is no trust without transparency." (Wal-Mart will have more insight into what's going on at factories than ever before thanks to the work of Ma Jun who runs an NGO that has compiled compliance data on every factory. See his group's stunning water pollution map here.)

Dropping suppliers: Wal-Mart will work with suppliers that fail to comply, but "if after a period of time, the supplier does not improve, we will move our business."

This last commitment is the one that gives all the others teeth and its worth repeating: for suppliers that do not live up to the standard, Wal-Mart will stop buying from them. This profound statement is truly historic. I've never heard a sizable company say this out loud. As Lee Scott said later, the companies that don't improve "will be banned from making products for Wal-Mart." Again, this clarity is unprecedented, but Scott made a business case for sustainability as a key screen for suppliers:

"A company that cheats on age of labor, dumps chemicals in rivers, or does not pay taxes will ultimately cheat on the quality of products...that's the same as cheating on customers and we will not tolerate that at Wal-Mart."

Scott is saying that sustainability ties directly to quality and serves as an indicator of a good or bad producer. This attitude demonstrates just how deep sustainability has gone at Wal-Mart. Execs truly believe that sustainability ties to core performance. Lee Scott said that "over the life of a product, it costs less to make product that passes testing, and over the life of the product it costs less to make one that's socially responsible and builds a loyal employee and customer base."

Clearly all of these commitments will not be easy to meet by any stretch of the imagination. First, Wal-Mart has to change the internal culture -- as one of the suppliers told me, "They sound serious, but with buyers it's still price, price, price." Lee Scott did address the associates directly during his talk and reinforced the message, but until buyers are paid or promoted differently, it's just talk.

Second, China is China. I met one of the keynotes speakers, Liz Economy, head of the Asia program at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The River Runs Black, a book about China's environment. As she pointed out in her speech, Chinese companies use 20% more water and 40% more energy than companies in rest of world, and only 25% of waste water is treated currently (which makes the goal of having 95% in compliance by 2012 all the more aggressive).

I don't know a lot about the country, but the general feeling I got from the suppliers and China-watchers I met there seemed be a cautiously optimistic attitude of "we'll see." Many organizations, including the Chinese government itself, have been surprised at how hard change in the provinces really can be.

Lee Scott did not gloss over the challenges, but painted a picture of the promised land: "A year from now, each of you who chooses to make a commitment will be a more sustainable company and that will make a huge difference for you, Wal-Mart, China, our customers, and, yes, the planet."

The challenges are vast, but if, in a number of years, we see a cleaner manufacturing sector in China, and thus a cleaner country and world, Wal-Mart's Summit will be seen as one of the turning points.

This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.

Andrew Winston helps companies use environmental thinking to grow and prosper. He is co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold, writes a monthly e-letter Eco-Advantage Strategies, and regularly blogs on green business.

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