Walmart’s Sustainability Journey


GLOBE-Net, December 19, 2012 – In 2005 Walmart made history when then-CEO Lee Scott announced a bold sustainability strategy that would impact every aspect of its business.

The task of implementing the strategy fell to Walmart’s former vice president of strategy and sustainability Andy Ruben (Pictured below).

“I can barely describe just how many nights we spent just hashing it out and fighting and arguing about how we were going to live up to our potential,” Ruben recalls.

Ruben made the comments in “Walmart’s Sustainability Journey: Andy Ruben and the Design of Strategic Goals and Processes,” one of seven case studies that make up the Walmart Sustainability Case Project.

Andy Rueben

The project is an in-depth analysis based on 30 interviews, 25 of which were with current or former employees of Walmart, and will be used to teach business students at the University of South Carolina about sustainability and business development. (See article here)

“The goal of the Walmart sustainability case project is to lead students through an in-depth analysis of Walmart’s journey of formulating, implementing and measuring an ambitious corporate sustainability strategy,”  said Andrew Spicer, an associate professor at USC’s Darla Moore School of Business.

“Because we have written multiple, interconnecting teaching cases, we are able to have students look across organizational levels and across time to evaluate and learn from Walmart’s experience,”

Spicer led the Walmart Sustainabilty Case Project with David Hyatt, a clinical assistant professor in Arkansas’ Sam Walton College of Business. Their collaboration has resulted in seven case studies that provide an in-depth analysis of Walmart’s effort to develop and implement its sustainability goals of creating zero waste, being supplied by 100 percent renewable energy and selling sustainable products.

The cases can be accessed for free on the project website.

For the project, the researchers conducted more than 30 interviews, including 25 with current and former Walmart executives and employees to get a variety of perspectives on how the giant retail company is carrying out the strategy through its businesses practices and products. In doing so, Spicer and Hyatt have examined what the company has accomplished, what has worked and what hasn’t.

“I can barely describe how many nights were spent just hashing it out and fighting and arguing about how we were going live up to our potential. In these rooms were smart, passionate people arguing about what to do.… How are we possibly going to figure this stuff out? At some point we realized that every time someone at Walmart makes a decision, there are 100 unintended consequences. And there’s no one person who’s ever going to get all those. So our goal became to help every business leader understand more of the unintended consequences so they would simply make better business decisions. Our focus couldn’t be about the business decisions but rather how we would interject sustainability thinking into the business when you’ve got a million and a half people internally, and hundreds of millions of people having that system’s viewpoint externally?… I think those holy-cow moments pushed us to figure out how to deliver on that in new ways.” Andy Ruben, former vice president of strategy and sustainability, Walmart.

At the center of each case are questions that address sustainability at a societal, organizational and individual level. These include questions such as: Who in society should set standards for sustainability – government, consumers, scientists or companies?

Who in an organization should make decisions about strategy, and how should success be measured and communicated? By what criteria should individuals make their own decisions about sustainability in their roles as leaders, employees and consumers?

“These cases aren’t meant to be a full examination of all the issues that Walmart has faced in its on-going sustainability journey,” Spicer said. “We chose these cases to identify those key decision-points in Walmart’s efforts that would lead to insightful and thoughtful discussions about the opportunities and challenges of designing and implementing a corporate sustainability strategy.”

Spicer said plans calls for adding more cases and materials to the website to help professors further enhance their teaching about the relationship between business and sustainability. Spicer will teach the full case series this spring in a course on corporate sustainability in the Moore School’s International MBA (IMBA) program.

He says while the cases can be taught as stand-alone topics, they are best taught as a series so that professors and students can identify and examine the recurring issues that arise across different levels of personnel in an organization, stages of decision-making and over time.

The cases augment other Moore School resources on sustainability, including the school’s Page Prize for Sustainability in Business Curricula, a repository of the best courses and coursework in sustainability taught at business schools nationally and internationally.

Read Walmart’s Sustainability Journey: Andy Ruben and the Design of Strategic Goals and Processes,” here.


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