Wal-Mart’s ’Green’ Muscle Fuels Unruh’s Goal of Sustainability

Gregory Unruh
Gregory Unruh, environmental consultant, professor and director of the Glendale, Arizona, Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management. Unruh believes that nature's efficiency - with materials, energy and information - is something we can and should emulate in business. Source: Gregory Unruh via Bloomberg

Outside the Starbucks on Manhattan’s Park Avenue South, cars and pedestrians stream constantly through the insatiable beast of Grand Central Terminal, while inside caffeine junkies fuel up.

I’m getting my own fix with Gregory Unruh, environmental consultant, director of the Glendale, Arizona, Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management and professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Unruh not only preaches the gospel of responsible, green management, he can cite some unusual apostles, such as Wal-Mart.

More broadly, Unruh (pronounced Oon-roo) wants to translate nature’s lessons on efficiency into practices companies can adopt. He seeks links between the biosphere -- the amalgam of all the planet’s ecosystems -- and business strategies that will provide a route to the holy grail of environmentalism: sustainability.

“We have only one model of a sustainable production system, and it’s been operating on planet Earth for billions of years,” Unruh tells me as we add to the Starbucks waste stream. “The only place we can look for a model on sustainable production is the biosphere.”

An avid hiker, Unruh gets much of his inspiration from long walks in nature. In the past year he has hiked in the Spanish Pyrenees, the Swiss Alps, the Costa Rican rain forest and Palm Canyon in southeast California.

“It really struck me when I was hiking in the Palm Canyon oasis. Even in a stark desert landscape you had producers, consumers and decomposers working in symbiotic ways that ensured the endless value-cycling of resources. It wastes nothing.”

Things of Value

Unruh believes that nature’s efficiency -- with materials, energy and information -- is something we can and should emulate. He has identified five principles in nature that boil down to: Waste nothing, produce things of value, repeat.

“When I talk about sustainability, I mean environmentally sustainable production,” he says. “Production and technological innovation that can go on forever, without damaging or undermining the ecosystem and the biosphere itself.”

I’m skeptical that such sustainability is possible alongside economic growth, even in theory. Unruh agrees it’s a challenge, particularly when considering Asia’s leviathan economies.

“Tata Motors has come up with the Nano,” he says. “Once you start giving a billion Indians automobiles for $2,000, the demand for oil is just going to skyrocket.”

That’s the main problem, really, when we are confronted with tough choices, such as whether to stifle economic development in order to save the planet for the kids. Unruh sees that as a false choice. Economic juggernauts can do more good than harm -- if they are so inclined.

One Company’s Pull

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with more than $400 billion in sales, has the pull of a small (and rich) country. When the company announced last year it was launching a sustainability index -- and that it expects the products on its shelves to comply -- its 60,000 suppliers took notice.

Unruh could see the impression the Bentonville, Arkansas, behemoth had on those suppliers when meeting with the corporate responsibility team of one of them, Clorox Co.

“They said, ‘Wal-Mart is everybody’s biggest customer. Next to Wal-Mart, the EPA is nothing,’” he says. “So Wal-Mart in that sense has become more of an environmental regulator than the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Impressive, but is the company’s green index for real? “They are in the process,” Unruh says. “What’s fascinating is that they are defining what sustainability means for every class of product. Wal-Mart carries the big stick: If you want it to stock your product on its shelves you’d better conform.”

Green Stimulus

Government-induced innovation can be surprisingly effective as well. Unruh notes, with guarded optimism, that some stimulus-package money has made its way into energy projects that might otherwise have lain dormant, citing smart-grid technology and experimental algae-based fuels.

“We’re not going to be able to run everything on solar energy tomorrow, but there’s a lot of things we can do in the interim, and when we start thinking in those terms, people are really innovative -- especially business people looking to make a buck.”

I’m less sanguine about our prospects for developing truly sustainable businesses, or even whether such a thing is theoretically possible. The biosphere has had 3.5 billion years of evolutionary trial-and-error to produce its goods (99 percent of which are extinct, including all our Homo ancestors), while human enterprises are on much smaller time scales, with little margin for error.

More Than Metaphor

Nevertheless, the species will have to rethink the way it does things, and emulating natural systems isn’t so far-fetched. Unruh is pointing to the biosphere as more than a metaphor but less than an absolute model. Somewhere in between there may lie paradigm-shifting solutions to the way we live.

The author concedes that translating sustainability into a business plan isn’t easy, but in either case the language is green: “Fundamentally, in business terms, sustainability equals profit. If it’s not profitable, it’s a subsidy.”

Unruh’s book “Earth, Inc.: Using Nature’s Rules to Build Sustainable Profits” was published last month by Harvard Business Press (189 pages, $24.95). To order in North America, click here.

(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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