A Walmart business summit, with keynote speech by Dr. David Suzuki. How could these two seemingly opposed global forces exist in the same confined space? This I had to see.

The sun was just rising as I wheeled up to Vancouver’s Pan Pacific Hotel, to find out what Walmart had up its sleeve when it invited 350 top retail execs and competitors for the Walmart Canada Green Business Summit.

The Mayor, the Premier, environmental alarm, sustainability case studies, live wireless polling, this show had it all. I even got to ask the Walmart CEO, face-to-face, about their business model and position on packaging take-back recycling.

This blog is going to run on a bit, but I wanted to keep all of the info in one document, so grab an organic java and get comfortable.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson opened with a rapid-fire blitz on Vancouver’s green agenda (unfortunately he didn’t use our new ‘Green Capital’ brand name once that I heard) One stat he lobbed was that Vancouver’s carbon emissions have settled at 1990 levels, even as our population has grown. Still, buildings account for 54% of that carbon. So he’s looking for collaboration with companies that can retrofit buildings – looking to reduce that footprint by 2% per year. He also mentioned the city’s new Open3 program – Open source, open standards, open software – that lets entrepreneurs have access to the city’s data to help develop more efficient systems. Can we become the world’s greenest city? When the Mayor rides his bike to a conference like this and talks with this kind of green acumen, it’s a good start.

Our host, Mark Miller of Discovery Channel fame, kept things moving smoothly, introducing the Main Man of Walmart Canada. In this corner…

The Sustainability Challenge a la David Cheesewright Walmart Canada’s CEO is another leader who bikes to work each day (20k each way) He’s also been at the forefront of making BIG changes. So he welcomed us from a position of inspiration. “You’re here because of a common purpose… Solving some of the problems we’re going to face, requires people to work across boundaries they haven’t had to before.” he said. “Today is your opportunity to start to build a bigger team.”

Rebecca Harris from Blue Sky consulting then led a short collaboration exercise – asking delegates to share a personal breakthrough moment with their table. The hubub of conversation tells me its breaking the ice, but its hard to imagine hardcore business competitors truly collaborating with sworn corporate enemies.


David Suzuki, taking no pinstripe prisoners: “The Triple Bottom Line is absolute nonsense.” Ouch.

Well, he started with good news. “In 1962,” he began, “there wasn’t a single ‘department of environment’ in any government anywhere.” Suzuki then went on to describe how a certain Provincial Minister of Environment told him flat out he puts the economy ahead of ecosystems. Hmmm.

“Nature doesn’t care about human boundaries.” he continued. “Nature sets the limits. We can’t shoehorn nature into the human agenda.”

Suzuki describes groups like The Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Fraser Institute as paid lobbyists, confusing the issue.

“Climatologists say they are over 90% certain we are entering a period of human-induced climate change. Would you get on a plane if it was 90% likely to crash? Or even 10%? We don’t argue with investing money in insurance against theft, earthquakes… When it comes to climate change, we’re not willing to shell out a cent. Why are we turning our backs on the reality of what’s happening to the planet?”

Most surprising to me was his statement that the Triple Bottom Line (equal overlapping circles representing economic, social and environmental interests) is “absolute nonsense”. In reality, says Suzuki, 30 Million species of organisms share one circle. Human beings should have one circle within that. Our economy a smaller circle within that. “We have to start by all agreeing that the health of the ecosystem is the highest priority.” he said, “We make nature pay the price for our economic problems.”

Suzuki further claims that anyone who says we should get a free carbon pass because we live in a northern climate and can’t afford to freeze, is lying. Sweden (somewhere up near Whitehorse in latitude) has had a carbon tax since 1991. They now pay $120/tonne (compared to $15/tonne in BC). Since then they have reduced emissions 8% below 1990 levels, yet their economy grew at a 4% rate.

He pointed to the human ability to envision the future as our survival advantage, and then dropped the responsibility for change loudly on the silent tables of suits before him. “Without the private sector we’re never going to make it.”

He got a thorough, if reluctant, standing ovation.

It was kind of weird to see David Suzuki speaking in front of a Walmart logo. But in terms of getting the agenda back to the big picture, he did not disappoint.


Panel Discussion:

Here, 5 business leaders shared a case study on sustainability, along with a few of their thoughts on the future.

Peter Luik – Heinz – Stat: 98% of tomatoes come from within 100km of their plant. Mr. Luik defined Sustainability as ‘another term for wasting less’. A narrow description of the problem, to be sure. His pet peeve is the lack of commonality in local/provincial/federal recycling standards. Too true.

John Peoples –  S.C. Johnson and Son, Limited Stat: By the end of 2009, GHG emissions at their Canadian marketing facility were reduced by 53%, while manufacturing volume continued to increase.

David Labistour – Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) Stat: MEC diverts 94% of their waste from landfill. Yet, says Labistour, their true footprint lies upstream in their products (not downstream in waste) A full 25% of the world’s chemicals are used in textiles, he continues, and processing of textiles may eventually cease to exist in some areas where human needs take precedence over water demands.

Anne Tennier P.Eng – Maple Leaf Foods – Stat: Working on an ‘Integrated ‘Protein Value Chain’ (my vote for the scariest term of the day) In 2006 Maple Leaf created a 30 million litre/year biodiesel plant co-located with their rendering plant. (Biodiesel GHG emissions are 99% lower when compared to petro diesel)

David Cheesewright – CEO, Walmart  Canada Stat: Introduced Walmart’s Personal Sustainability Project – individuals commiting to their own ‘sustainability’ plans, from walking to work to quitting smoking, in front of their peers. Over 200,000 PSPs are now in place chain-wide.  There’s no downside in engaging the masses to do the small things. Being big is not always great, (he acknowledged Walmart is unloved by many) yet when it comes to making sustainable changes, size is an advantage.

Matt Kistler, Wlmart Senior Vice President of Sustainability, on the big picture.

Walmart’s global sustainability guy talked about their ‘360’ approach, which has three pillars “Our footprint, Our Supply Chain, Our customers.” To their credit, Walmart offers clear, broad, aspirational goals: 1) To be supplied by 100% renewable energy; 2) To create zero waste; 3) To sell products that sustain people and the environment.

As the Walmart supply chain represents 92% of their footprint, they are helping fund an organization called – that generates ‘open source science’ available to all. This will be a sustainability research group and a resource for all companies to use.

Their newest initiative is a Canadian version of the Sustainable Product Index. (See separate Green Briefs article on the news release) This Sustainability Index will allow consumers to be able to compare materials, resources and the life cycle of products. Sort of like a planetary version of the Nutrition Information labeling. One day a scannable version will allow us to access information on our smart phone, right from the shelf.

I wanted to go deeper into Walmart’s business, to find out more – I was about to get my chance.

The Big PRESS CONFERENCE. Green Briefs asks the tough questions!

At lunch, the media were invited to a special press briefing on four new announcements from Walmart. We lined up in the chairs, in front of us were the big execs at the big table with the big microphones. David Cheesewright and Matt Sistler unveiled a new Perishables Distribution Centre in Balzac Alberta, new wind and solar power projects in Ontario, the web site, and the new Sustainability Index for Canada. You can read my blog article on the release here, but what really excited me was the chance to ask Walmart Canada’s CEO about the very heart of their business model, and get their response to London Drugs’ Bring Back the Pack initiative.

“We’ve heard a lot about efficiency and streamlining the supply chain, but what about the basic Walmart business model? Selling more stuff? Do you have plans in place to address more sustainable consumerism?”

The short answer was no. Cheesewright talked about giving consumers more and better choices, but at the bottom of it all, the business model stands unchallenged.

“Local retailer London Drugs is now taking back packaging from the consumer at the store and responsibly recycling it. Do you have plans to offer this service with your packaging?”

Again, the answer: No.

Said Cheesewright, “The first thing you would do if you wanted to create a really inefficient supply chain would be to ask consumers to bring back to 313 different locations… one of the good things about Canada is… the program of getting waste either from our stores or from home back into the system is not bad.  If we can get that   consistent across the country that’s a way more efficient way of dealing with the packaging…”

Way more efficient for Walmart, for sure, as consumers face the inconvenience of finding depots and municipalities and local governments pick up the tab for  recycling. London Drugs has been working really hard to make the reverse logistics on recycling take-back work. Seems to me Walmart could do it even better if they tried.

Working Session: Innovation Ideas

The afternoon at the Green Business Summit was spent in working sessions. I was not part of the working groups, but noticed quite a bit of enthusiasm from a room full of such dark suits. At the session’s end, the moderator highlighted several of the ‘sustainability innovations’ various tables had come up with. Among them:

Creating an LED light that uses only 1 watt of power to produce 60 watts of lighting

100% closed-loop cradle-to-cradle product – the bamboo bicycle frame. (I think this exists already, but a nice thought)

Creating universal consumer acceptance of non-white (unbleached) paper. Encouraging greater recycled content, reducing the demand for fiber. (This was introduced by Scott McDougall of Terrachoice Marketing – don’t be surprised if you actually see this one go!)

Create a global standardization for all product manufacturing worldwide. From materials to production. You can’t get on the shelf unless you meet the standard.


The real-time table-top vote clicker. Love to have one of these to judge everything. All the time.

Finalists were judged with a unique system – each delegate clicked their choice on a wireless device and votes were tallied in real time. The winner by a wide margin: Global Standardization.

I’m sure the Walmart juggernaut was listening.

Gordon Campbell addresses the masses.

What began with the Mayor, ended with the Premier, and his messaging was similar. Bring the environment and the economy together in a spirit of ‘coopetition’… (?!) Campbell used the Pine Beetle epidemic to illustrate the multiplying costs of climate change, linking the dying forests to increased flooding (through less water absorption), and rising firefighting costs. He waxed visionary about BC as a world source for clean energy – listing not just hydro power, but cellulosic ethanol, natural gas reserves (?!!) and the always-sexy-but-somewhat-impractical examples of fuel cell development, and the fleet of 20 hydrogen buses in Whistler. No mention of where the hydrogen is coming from.

Then he switched to beating the drum for BC forestry, describing China’s devastating earthquake of a few years back as “a $3 Billion opportunity for Canadian wood.”

After that it was all hope, vision, future, green blah blah blah.

Stop the Grizzly hunt, Gordo.

The last Spike – Sustainability Commitment Signing Ceremony

In a moment designed to be a photo op, but unfortunately over-dramatized with a mounting soundtrack reminiscent of the music track for ‘The Weakest Link’, Walmart Canada challenged companies to take part in a Sustainability Commitment. They asked businesses and organizations to commit to implementing a new sustainable initiative in their business over the next year. Eleven companies had pre-signed the deal, and the Walmart website says another 13 signed on during the day. Here’s the total so far as I have them: 3M Canada, BISSELL Inc, Canadian Tire, Coca-Cola Canada, Hewlett-Packard Canada, Home Depot Canada, Kraft Canada, Maple Leaf Foods, PepsiCo Foods Canada, SC Johnson and Son Ltd, Walmart Canada, Heinz, MacDonalds, Natures Grilling Products, Unilever, Staples, Kruger Products, and Spin Master.

My last Green Briefs 2-bits: Walmart should have had each delegate make a ‘Personal Sustainability Plan’ from this meeting. As it is, I hope to follow up with the companies that made sustainability promises and see where they are in a year.

If there’s a Summit II in 2011, my typing fingers should have healed by then.

Thanks for reading. Over and out.

Previous: «
Next: »