Sunday, January 6, 2008

Green Memo: Adam Werbach and the 'Greening' of Wal-Mart

At age 23, Adam Werbach became the youngest president of the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and most prestigious environmental organizations in the United States.

Werbach's election as president didn't come easy. The old guard at the Sierra Club believed he was not only to young to run the national organization, but that his lack of experience and seasoning would set the group back even farther than it already was at the time.

However, after a strong campaign, and a fight against a group of senior board members, Werbach was elected president of the word-famous conservation organization. His tenure heading the Sierra Club wasn't without controversy though. But Werbach left a legacy, which was to bring thousands of young people into the environmental organization, energizing it and providing for its longevity.

After leaving the Sierra Club, Webach courted controversy within the environmental advocacy community once again. A few years ago he gave a talk at the San Francisco-based Commonwealth Club, one of the oldest and most prestigious public affairs organizations and forums in the U.S. Werbach's speech, "is Environmentalism Dead," seriously criticized the environmental movement for not including the causes of economic and social justice along with environmentalism.

The speech created Werbach fans and Werbach enemies within the environmental and conservation community. It also stimulated much debate and discussion within the community over the ideas of conservation without other political goals (such as economic and social justice) and environmentalism with a cause; the joining together of the concepts of ecological, economic and social justice as a comprehensive goal.

Not one shy to controversy in the past, perhaps Werbach's current engagement is the one that's generating the most controversy to date in his career as an environmental and conservation advocate. What is his current engagement?

Warbach, who currently runs an environmental-oriented consulting firm called Act Now Productions based in San Francisco, has joined up with Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation and retailer, in their effort to green the company and develop an integrated sustainability program company and store-wide.

The cover story in today's San Francisco Chronicle Magazine chronicles Werbach's life as an environmentalist--from his first formal "green" act, which was drawing up a petition while in the second grade to oust James Watt, former President Ronald Reagan's controversial Secretary of the Interior in the 1980's--to his serving as a paid sustainability consultant today for Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart.

We've written often here about Wal-Mart's sustainability initiative. The Chronicle's cover story, written by Burr Snider, offers some new and additional insights about what Wal-Mart is up to on the sustainability front, while at the same time providing some interesting information about the usually private battles that go on within the environmental and conservation community. It also profiles Werbach's life-long work and dedication to the environmental cause as he sees it.

Werbach, like us, believes Wal-Mart is sincere in it's efforts to create a sustainable culture and corporation. (If for no other reason than economics.) We've written about our problems with Wal-Mart--its hourly wages (to low we believe), Health insurance policies (to minimal), lead-paint covered toys (outrageous) and a few other issues we believe the retailer needs to dramatically improve on for its associates and customers.

However, we believe having Wal-Mart as a corporate (and retailing) leader on green and sustainability issues is a major plus. Like they say in the business world: As Wal-Mart goes, so goes the rest of the industry.

Read the full cover story, "Werbach at Wal-Mart? here.

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