Book Review – Force of Nature

I have a love/hate relationship with Wal-Mart.  Seeing as I’m not made of money, Wal-Mart’s low prices, especially on groceries, are a great help to my family’s budget.  Additionally, it is a good example of how capitalism and the free market works.  Sam Walton started his business small and by offering consumers goods that they needed or wanted at a low price soon built this business into one of the largest companies on the planet.  However, its size has also been misused in a number of ways.   All this and more is covered in Edward Humes’ new book, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution.

As the title suggests, Wal-Mart is not usually the first company that people think of when considering any kind of “green” revolution or anything that makes a positive impact on the environment.  In fact, it’s probably closer to the bottom of that list than the top.  In Force of Nature, Humes chronicles the Wal-Mart story, pointing out both the good and the bad aspects of the company, including its aversion to anything related to a “save the planet” mantra.  In the company leaders’ eyes, such concerns were relegated to the “social responsibility” category and were completely optional.  But this all changed – and quite dramatically – when  Jib Ellison, a corporate consultant entered the scene.

Ellison’s crowning achievement was to convince Wal-Mart executives – CEO Lee Scott foremost among them – that “making profits and saving the planet can—and must—go hand in hand.”  Humes takes the reader through the process that Ellison followed, showing how small changes here and there added up to huge savings AND reduced pollution in some form or fashion.  Wal-Mart began to use its formidable size and clout to push its suppliers to more energy-saving, trash-reducing measures.  The result is a reshaping of entire industries to be more conscientious of the environmental effects of their business and the effect this has on bottom lines.

Much of the book is a very fascinating read.  It was quite interesting to see how small changes added up and how Wal-Mart is aiming for the harder-to-attain changes.  Humes does a fair job of presenting Wal-Mart’s positive influences as well as the not-so-pretty side of the lawsuits and employment issues it has faced.  Even though certain undesirable aspects of Wal-Mart’s business operations are discussed, the book often comes across as a PR effort trying to get Wal-Mart into environmentalist’s good books.  And in some aspects, it worked.

Perhaps the slowest part of the book dealt with the measures and in-depth analysis of Wal-Mart’s big push in creating a sustainability index.  Even as an analyst who deals with numbers all day, I found this section to be tedious.

Ultimately, Force of Nature shows that when businesses, especially ones the size of Wal-Mart, get serious about green initiatives, the result can be industry shaping.  This is a quick and interesting read that certainly has me looking at Wal-Mart just a little bit differently.

(This book was received via the Amazon Vine Program. )

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