Book Review: ‘Force of Nature’

In Edward Humes‘ “Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution,” the idealistic environmental consultant Jib Ellison pledges to “remake” Wal-Mart and other “corporate scions” into “environmentally sound powerhouses.” His strategy: Force executives to peer through the “lens of sustainability” – changing their worldviews “permanently.”

Yet Mr. Ellison’s lens appears out of focus – clouding reality to those who wear it, including Mr. Humes. For that reason, Mr. Humes‘ otherwise engaging book falls short, rarely questioning Mr. Ellison’s gospel.

According to Mr. Humes, Wal-Mart executives began to embrace the green worldview in 2004 after attending a two-day “Limits to Growth”-styled seminar orchestrated by Mr. Ellison and environmental activists. The activists schooled 25 executives on why Wal-Mart’s business model was “unsustainable.” If the doom-and-gloom greens had any good news, it was that Wal-Mart could atone by hiring a team of activists to help reform the company’s purchasing and operations, advice Wal-Mart heeded.

Early on, Wal-Mart pursued some sensible energy-efficient, money-saving projects – if Mr. Humes‘ descriptions are at all accurate. The largest gains appear to have resulted from packaging innovation that included in one case replacing bulky cardboard with lighter-weight and more energy-efficient plastic bags. Yet Wal-Mart executives never needed green indoctrination for that. Markets have always driven material downsizing – reducing material use for everything from aluminum cans to skyscrapers.

Wal-Mart should have stopped there but instead fell for a questionable anti-consumption ideology. Mr. Humes highlights Wal-Mart initiatives to eliminate alleged carcinogens found at trace levels in some products. Yet there is scant evidence that such low exposures pose any risks.

Despite increased use of synthetic chemicals during the past several decades, cancer deaths and incidence both have declined, as documented by the National Cancer Institute’s annual reports to the nation on cancer. Scientists Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold have also noted: “There is no convincing evidence that synthetic chemical pollutants are important as a cause of human cancer.”

Never questioning the hype, Mr. Humes explains how Wal-Mart solicited the advice of green-product activist William McDonough, who urged the company to back away from supposed perilous products such as carpets backed by polyvinyl chloride (PVC), aka vinyl. Such carpet, Mr. McDonough told Wal-Mart executives, posed cancer risks and was too difficult to recycle.

However, there is little proof that cancer is caused by trace exposures to chemicals found in vinyl, whose health effects have been studied extensively around the world. And PVC-backed carpet is quite recyclable. For example, C&A Floor Coverings reports having recycled more than 100 million pounds of vinyl-backed carpet, and it is not the only one recycling it.

Not mentioned by Mr. Humes or Mr. McDonough is the fact that PVC is one of the most energy-efficient products on the market – beating its alternatives in life-cycle analyses for a wide range of applications. In fact, a Green Building Council study of PVC products for use in home building reported that if green building standards discouraged PVC use, they could encourage use of less environmentally sound alternatives.

Mr. Humes eventually acknowledges some critiques of Wal-Mart’s green programs. Specifically, he points to complaints that Wal-Mart strong-arms its suppliers by demanding “greener” products. Mr. Humes responds: “Wal-Mart suppliers still have a choice,” and he has a point there.

Voluntary industry self-regulation is an American tradition that is driven purely by market forces. Associations self-regulate using scientific review committees to promote product safety and quality control, such as the Underwriters Laboratories, which ensures electronics safety, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review.

The difference between those programs and Wal-Mart’s affair with the greens is the quality of the information fed into the system. Wal-Mart executives were fed a diet heavy in ideological green bunk, which they used to set standards for suppliers.

Interestingly, as Wal-Mart donned green-colored glasses, the retailer’s prices grew less competitive. Target now offers lower prices on many items, and the price gap between groceries from Wal-Mart and Whole Foods is narrowing. Mr. Humes never notes those realities, nor does he detail the costs of Wal-Mart’s green program. Instead, he selectively reports on several cost-cutting green initiatives.

Near the end of the book, Mr. Humes finally hints that green programs don’t always save money. The company’s goal to score every product on a “sustainability index,” he explains, would require “impossible amounts of money” and likely would offer inaccurate information.

In his epilogue, Mr. Humes asks the million-dollar question: “Can Wal-Mart be sustainable?” His answer? “No.” At best: “Wal-Mart has led the business world toward a new age of sustainability.” But that does Wal-Mart little good.

Ultimately, greens will never endorse Wal-Mart’s real mission: to provide affordable consumption for the masses via the retail giant’s global purchasing power and growing number of stores. Wal-Mart executives may need to remove their green-colored glasses before they realize that the only outcome the greens will find truly “sustainable” is Wal-Mart’s eventual demise.