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Interview: Walmart’s Green Human Resources Best Practices

Bill Roth | Wednesday April 7th, 2010 | 2 Comments

Walmart is gaining a considerable amount of attention from its big-picture strategic goal to be “supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, creating zero waste and selling products that sustain people and the environment.” Much has been written about its intent to green its supply chain to achieve a 20 million metric ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the development of environmental product ratings.

I reached out to Walmart to inquire on how it is engaging its 2+ million associates, located across four continents, to turn its announced strategies into tangible results. The answers to my questions are best practices that every human resources leader in America should post on his or her bulletin board.

“We have a volunteer associate sustainability program at Walmart,” explained Candace Taylor, Walmart’s Director of Sustainability. “The program asks our associates a basic question: What one thing could you do to make a difference in terms of your health, your community or the natural environment?” By asking this question, Walmart has successfully engaged approximately half of its U.S. associates and more than half the associates in other markets such as Brazil and Canada to take some kind of action. That’s at least 500,000 people around the world focusing on wellness, their community and the environment.

“In many cases our associates first focused on the question of personal health,” Taylor observed. “We’ve seen a tremendous number of associates who quit smoking or have achieved significant personal weight loss. What we are now seeing is that from this first tier of success associates are expanding their focus onto how they can volunteer more in their local communities and they are increasing their understanding on actions they can take that benefit the natural environment. In addition, as more associates report their successes we are seeing more associates volunteer to participate in this program.”

Chapter Six of my book The Secret Green Sauce profiles eight green team best practices harvested from companies who are having success achieving profits by reducing their environmental footprint. The first two best practices on this list are the very same ones that Walmart has used to anchor the start-up of the program, namely a focus upon volunteers and starting with low-hanging fruit.

One of my favorite examples from within my own business network comes from a company whose first green team was started by its Human Resources manager, with help from volunteers drawn from across the company. After much brainstorming, they elected to first focus upon an idea for using glassware rather than paper cups in the company kitchen. Today, this singular volunteer effort is achieving $12,000 in annual savings with a corresponding reduction in paper waste stream. And it was achieved without senior management attention or company funding. I have heard stories like this from company after company where measurable bottom line profits and positive environmental impacts are being achieved by empowering volunteer-associates on the question of how to adopt sustainability.

Recognition is a key

Another key best practice Taylor identified was Walmart’s continuous recognition of associates and their stories of achievement. “Each store and department in Walmart has the freedom to determine who to recognize,” Taylor explains. “And we also recognize associates at our annual corporate meetings. For example, last year we recognized an associate who brought to our attention the value of taking the lights out of break room vending machines. This action saves the company $1 million a year!”

That is number seven, Celebrate Success, on my list of green team best practices. Companies that are succeeding in growing their green revenues and profits are doing so by growing their associates’ support by recognizing their contributions. Some do it like Walmart through management recognition while others hold cook outs or social events that mix fun, sustainability and profits.

Executive and management sponsorship is also critical to sustaining green team success and is why I listed it as number three on my green team best practices list. This, too, is a hallmark of the Walmart program. “We not only offer time for associates to adopt sustainability projects but we offer this same opportunity to our managers and leaders,” Taylor notes. “We are now seeing affinity groups emerge around issues like recycling or water conservation that includes participation by both associates and management. We even have examples of volunteers networking to find managers and leaders who will volunteer their time in support of a team’s efforts.”

IBM’s legendary president Thomas Watson, Sr. introduced many innovations in human resources development tied to engaging associates that he summarized in a one word motto, “THINK.” At this critical stage in business where our economy and environment is searching for solutions the dynamic of Walmart’s associate/management engagement articulately captures Watson’s vision. Businesses in my network that are enabling collaborative management/associate thinking are succeeding in growing green revenues, profits and environmental improvements.

Green Teams will grow leaders

And my interview with Taylor has now provided me with a new, number nine best practice for a company seeking to adopt human resources activities in support of going green. This new best practices is: Green Teams Will Grow Leaders. “One benefit from our program is that our company is now discovering new leaders among volunteering associates,” Taylor notes. Taylor is actually such an example having begun her involvement in sustainability as a volunteer in the Real Estate Department where she worked. Her own volunteer efforts as a captain of the associate sustainability program provided her the opportunity to earn her current job as the Director of Sustainability. Taylor led a team of associate volunteers in her department and provided personal examples of how she began composting and using reusable shopping bags to lower her impact on the environment.

A lot of the businesses in my network shop at Walmart. Even more lust to be one of its suppliers. Now there is an additional reason for businesses to focus on Walmart. This new reason comes from the retailer’s pioneering efforts at developing human resources best practices that are producing measurable results for the environment, wellness and profits.

Bill Roth is the founder of Earth 2017 and author of The Secret Green Sauce.


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