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September 03, 2007


Anne Libby

Joel, thanks for this post. I've seen a rural community where WalMart seems to have weighed heavily on the local business front, and perhaps not in a positive way.

But I had to take exception to a friend's recent comment that small businesses are inherently better than large businesses. What kind of benefits are offered to the emigres who stock the food shelves at the local, family-owned health food store I shop at? (WalMart certainly sets no gold standard in the employee benefits arena, but other large firms have better track records along this line.)

We need thought leaders like the people who attend Burning Man need to engage with the paradox of how Big can be Good...and then demand it. Because Big seems like it is here to stay. (And a small change by a large firm can make a huge difference. Imagine what would happen in the discussions on health care and living wage if all full time WalMart jobs came with a living wage and paid benefits? This is where I'd want to ask WalMart to engage on sustainability, myself, before I'd shop there.)

Bruce Wilkinson

Going green isn't possible without also social equality. A CEO is paid too much if paid 400 times the pay of workers. Businesses should aspire for transparency to encourage trust. Public relations is less effective on the questioning public, dialogue and cooperation work better. People respond to progress not just intention. Most of all, a business will be judged by it's lowest point and if a company has systemic problems then it will always produce low points.

Marc Gunther

Great post, Joel. I never imagined you as the Burning Man type, and so I admire your boldness in going forth to defend, or at least explain, corporate America. I take it that while members of the audience were naked (a new definition of transparency, perhaps), the speakers remained clothed?

Although I'm a fan of small business, and what Michael Shuman calls "The Small Mart Revolution," and although there's no question that big companies helped get us into our current mess, I don't see a way out that doesn't involve big business. The environmental problems are so massive that they demand large-scale solutions.

David Leventhal

Joel, completely agree with you on the Greening of Walmart issue. I participated recently in a debate between the CEO's of Seventh Generation and Worldwise. While Seventh Gen doesn't currently do business with Walmart, Worldwise does and I agree with this philosophy: lead by example, offer customers green products, educate the customer on the benefits of your products and let consumers vote with their dollars. In the end, Walmart is about distribution and we should do our best to make sure these products and companies which have earth friendly policies get the distribution they need and deserve. By the way, did you do your talk in the buff? David

David Fox

There seems to be a need for more imagination. Andy Ruben lead a conversation at Adam Werbach "Cirque Du Earth Event" in late June and I was too was struck by how few people were prepared to voice a vision that was up to the challenge. While there is obvious need for vigilance when it comes to greening claims (not just by megacorps, but by anyone for that matter) an automatic dismissal isn't going to move us forward. We're ALL conflicted, we've all done less-than-green/socially responsible things in the past, and we're all in this together. Here's to open hearts and open minds!

Chris Bartle

Hi Joel,

Sorry I missed you at Burning Man! It was my first year as well and I was there to see the green theme too. While I was blown away by the enormity of the event, the beauty of the playa and the creativity of the art work there, it was less than a green event unfortunately. Great that they were taking some small steps to be greener though. Ironically, just like many of the big businesses you write and talk about and your audience was skeptical about.

Good post. Thanks for being there!



You "enlightened" a few of us? You mean, a few gave up their belief corporations can never be green and came over to your more convenient opinion?

Hmmm....How about if I "enlighten" you:

First, corporations can not have good, or bad, intentions. They are legally bound to do one thing: Increase shareholder profit. If they even TRY to do anything else they are in violation of securities laws, period.

There is no "good intention" of walmart, there is only shareholder profit.

This is really an indisputable FACT and anyone who says different is naive or a liar. Hmmm...


Economies of scale are INHERENTLY unsustainable, therefore not green.

Exploiting Chinese labor is not green.

Selling petroleum products en masse is not green.

Giving another home to McDonald's, as Walmart does, is not Green.

Most important, bringing goods from all over the world, all with unsustainable mining, production, and transportation practices - which is walmart's essential identity - will NEVER be sustainable.

The traits that make walmart walmart are almost all inherently ungreen. If walmart were green it would cease to be walmart! It's like saying "can the US MARINES be pacifists?" Sure, if they call themselves "quakers" and turn over their guns to be melted down. But then they won't be Marines, they'll be quakers!

If walmart were green it woudnt be walmart. The "green" actions you suggest - selling a few green products, solar powering stores, etc - are miniscule, perfect examples of greenwashing (i cant think of better ones) that actually very little to solve environmental problems, and certainly require little in the way of sacrifice from walmart.

I think you must know this. I think you must know that global inudstrial capitalism will never be environmentally friendly. It is inherently ungreen because it needs always and forever to expand. Green means sustainable; capitalism is not sustainable.
Sustainability is CYCLIC, capitalism is linear and progressive - so it will die.

To me, you just sound like a warmer and fuzzier corporate apologist.

Not impressed.

Justin Lehrer

Thank you for this fascinating post, Joel, and kudos to you for speaking before this less-traditional, less-clothed, and certainly unpredictable audience. Burning Man is far from a sustainable event, and those Burners who are closed-minded to the positive change that can be brought about by corporations would do well to start working for change in their own backyard (or playa, as it were).

Those who claim that no corporation can strive for anything other than increased profit may be forgetting that no corporation can act on its own. They are run by people, some driven by profit-motive, others driven by a different "green" ideal. If the people working in an organization are working for positive change, it doesn't matter what the organization is legally bound to do, positive change is bound to happen.

Wal-mart may never be able to undo their bad reputation in the eyes of some. Their green efforts are a good step, but remain completely independent of their labor practices and their impact on small communities. However, it is hard to deny that Wal-mart is operating at the scale needed to address environmental problems, which transcend political boundaries and have world-wide impacts. In making their fleet and stores more efficient, and reducing their own waste as well as that of their suppliers, Wal-mart is affecting positive change on an unparalleled scale. Wal-mart is not going away, and neither are their millions of customers. So if Wal-mart can increase the market for organics, and reduce packaging, more power to them. That said, I think folks need to remember that this isn't all about Wal-mart. They have invaded the consciousness of the environmental community and sometimes I wonder if they aren't co-opting the movement, in a way. If any press is good press, well, let's just say their PR department is doing a fine job.


Joel -
That's interesting that even solar providers approached to do the event weren't allowed to show their logos.

I'd certainly have no problem with that - and would much rather have a few logos and lots of solar and mini-wind installations than lots of loud stinky generators whirring day and night.

Some more thoughts on The Green Man over at CV Notes: http://conservationvalue.blogspot.com/2007/09/burning-man-2007-was-it-really-green_05.html


Lance Funston


I wish I had known you were presenting at Burning Man this year. As both a 7-year veteran burner and Green MBA, I was eager to see how Burning Man would run with this theme. Surely with the incredible inventive spirit of this community, out of the box ideas to save the planet would abound... Right?

In reality, I felt the Green Man was a huge missed opportunity. Aside from a few really interesting exhibits (the algae scrubbers and the hexadome), much of the art even failed to provoke much thought on the issue.

Meanwhile, the amount of consumption of stuff and fossil fuels to get there and back (esp with an average 3 hour idle waiting to get out of the gate), made the event itself far from environmentally friendly.

There are so many opportunities there... Solar and Wind energy, gray water evaporation and reclamation, high reflectivity shelters. I hope that this theme was just a beginning rather than an end...


Hello ~

I am not learned on Wal-mart's plans to go green, so my perspective is slightly biased based on my experience in the natural & organic foods industry as well as being a fellow Green MBAer (hi Lance - was great meeting and camping with you this year at BM).

Joel, whether or not this conversation was posed at BM, I believe it to be hugely important and at the crux of what we - the global society as a whole - face as we navigate through the old Business as Usual paradigm and emerge into the new world of sustainability and resilience thinking.

What would it take for Wal-mart to be seen as truly "green"? Great question. Where does a company of this girth and global impact begin, especially when its fundamental economic success grew from the Business as Usual paradigm?

When is it appropriate to deem any company "green"?

When Wal-mart decided to support the organic movement, a nervous chill swept through the industry. How can a business of this size possibly balance the demand? Will they, along with other grocery chains, monopolize the supply? Do they understand the organic and sustainable agriculture world enough to make such a decision? Can farmers keep up with the demand and how will they be compensated? Will organic standards be lowered to meet the demand? Basically, what I'm asking I guess is, is this path sustainable???

Timing (and transparency) is everything; every company - big and small- deserves green praise IF they are being responsible and transparent in their communication/education to the public. Wal-mart has an opportunity to be a leader in this movement because it is such a goliath....BUT if praised prematurely, I worry about green washing and the potential hindering effects it would have on green & sustainable "standards".

Of course there is a story in a business like Wal-mart going green. But we as consumers and entrepreneurs must a) educate ourselves about sustainability and b) set the standards. This isn't about supporting the good guys vs. the bad guys...it's about healing the planet through business and cultural redesign. It's about transforming the entire system by setting the intention to create a better operating, less-focused-on-consumerism world.


oh yes, and I agree that this year was a missed opportunity for BM. BUT I wonder if the energy and conversations generated might have been different had the pavilion (where all exhibitors were placed) been open throughout the week as originally planned.


I found this post a bit irritating. First - burningman folks are very diverse politically. They range from die hard republicans who think global warming is a hoax, to people building and living in eco villages off the grid. Sweeping generalizations about 'their' politics is bunk.

Some green innovators over the years have been working on greening the event for a long time. Burningman did not start out and never claimed to be green AT ALL - until the hard work of these folks paid off. It is a city of now - 50,000 people... 50,000 extremely anti-top down, anti-authoritarian people. Anti-capitalist. Are you kidding? I've met more traders out there than I do on Wall Street. There was a lot of anti-green reaction there...where does that come from. Perhaps it's a hint of the backlash that is coming.

Green consumerism can be just as rapatious to the planet as it's predecessor. People at the burn have really acute bullshit detectors.

That said the people who started the festival were trying to create space for a culture and a cultural influence that was not driven by consumption - but by creation and participation. To allow space for the authentic human traits that get supressed or channelled into moneymaking in the wider culture. People go there to connect with what is real in themselves. To undermine the programming that says we are consumers and ONLY consumers and that our ONLY power lies in choosing what to buy. Is that anti-capitalist? No. It's pro-human. We are citizens, community members, family members...not just consumers - and more of our power lies in those roles that this culture admits.

Also, though I respect your work - I am annoyed as hell by the idea that you were awash - surrounded by "the unenlightend" -- In your book that seems to be anyone that questions some of the premises of 'greening' capitalism. You seem to think these questions have been answered and we are living in the glorious result of that process. "Green" capitalism - is still in its infancy - the Equity -- of the triple e- never never never seems to make it *really* to the table...though a little lip service is given to it.

People are not ignorant or "unimaginative" - they are suspicious based on hundreds of years of collective experience.

Multinationals globe hop to avoid environmental regulation. That has not stopped.

I see Lexus sponsoring the Sundance show -- and trying to tell me that a Lexus hybrid is green. It ain't.

So I think it is important to admit that the book is still out on how this will all turn out. And rational creative thoughtful people -- can do and will disagree with you - wearing pants or not.

I would like to hear if you learned anything FROM burningman...personally. Or were you just a tourist griping about
the heathen? I've met brilliant people there, green and not...and I learn a great deal everytime I go. It's been 9 years now. It's the one plane trip I haven't given up taking.

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