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Book review: 'Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution'

June 6, 2011 | 12:45 pm

ForceofNature hc final cover When Wal-Mart first started pitching me a few months ago about a slew of eco-friendly upgrades to their Lancaster store outside Los Angeles, I was skeptical. Clean electricity, natural and LED lighting, and non-toxic upkeep are par for the course in liberal, urban Santa Monica. But at a superstore in a suburban desert town?

But lo and behold, I took a field trip and there were the "Super Sandwich Bales" that Wal-Mart uses for recycling, the Bloom fuel cells out back, and a multitude of green products on the shelves. The world's largest retailer is beginning to install wind turbines on its parking lots, solar panels on its roofs and -– it seems -– more sustainability in its business plan.

Other companies are doing the same, but Wal-Mart may be the greening game-changer, says Edward Humes in his new book, "Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution." The Pulitzer Prize-winning author charts how the retail giant went from being a target for environmentalists' scorn and lawsuits to greening its supply chain.

It's a meticulously researched and engrossing narrative, one that starts with river guide and sustainability consultant Jib Ellison. With equal parts fervor and lucky timing, Ellison managed to convince then-Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee Scott that the company could be a environmental leader  while saving a buck or two (actually, more like millions).

The transformation wasn't easy, nor was it overnight. Ellison was up against Bentonville's historically insular, dubious and defensive company culture, Humes writes. Sustainability wasn't fully embraced until management began to see it as a  bottom-line booster and a cure for the company's reputation as being unfair to employees, unhealthy to communities and unsafe for the environment.

But after Scott told the entire Wal-Mart team in 2005 that the company was to forge ahead with greening, Humes makes a convincing case that the effort is not only bearing fruit but also persuading others to follow suit. From quick fixes such as shrinking packaging to more intensive projects such as transitioning to organic products and creating a green product index, as well as forays into fuel-efficient trucking and renewable energy, Wal-Mart is betting big on sustainability.

The question now, Humes writes, is whether rolling the dice will help the company win over another generation. We'll see. But for those interested in the relationship between business and environment -– once wary, now warming -– Humes' book is a compelling case study.


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Wal-Mart completes a megawatt solar project in Apple Valley

-- Tiffany Hsu