I interviewed Hunter for my September cover story “Working With the Enemy,” which chronicles the controversial journey of former Sierra Club president, Adam Werbach, who landed on Wal-Mart’s payroll. Here’s a glimpse into our hour-long conversation; what she had to say about Wal-Mart and the dangerous dance of activists being co-opted by corporations:
Danielle Sacks: When you first heard that Wal-Mart had outlined its audacious sustainability goals, did you buy that they were serious about it?
Hunter Lovins: Hell no. My feeling was, fair enough, they’re going to save themselves some money, put solar panels on their roofs and sell organic underwear. But if you roam the planet rapaciously exploiting people in developing countries and in communities here at home so people like me can throw away more junk, this is not sustainable.
But I had a realization—suppose the world you see around you is largely the world that we’re going to have? Many environmentalists in their heart of hearts have this fantasy, vision of somehow a small rural community life. For most of the world’s people it’s not going to be like that, there are more people living in cities now than rural areas around the world, the mega-cities of Asia are not getting smaller, they’re getting bigger. Wal-Mart has been a phenomenon of the suburbs, and of an individual car-based society. But if you look at the big trends of mass urbanization, and high energy prices so people won’t drive as much, that model starts to look just a little shaky.
DS: So you’re saying sustainability is not an option for the largest retailer in the world’s survival?
HL: Since Lee Scott took over, Wal-Mart’s stock has had a 30% dissolution in share value. Why? I think in part people are no longer only looking for “everyday low prices.” Wal-Mart’s critics are hurting them, they were run out of Germany because of their social policies, they are barred effectively from many cities, Chicago, San Francisco, Vermont. But more fundamentally, I think they have exhausted the business model that was so successful. You open a superstore every day, and you run out of territory that’s not being served by a superstore. And you’re cannibalizing yourself.
What would a truly sustainable Wal-Mart biz model be? I think if Wal-Mart grapples with that successfully it will continue to be a very large, powerful, wealthy company. If they fail, they could disappear.
DS: So what does a sustainable Wal-Mart business model look like?
Suppose in every Wal-Mart a certain amount of floor space was leased to small locally owned sustainable businesses. Suppose every time Wal-Mart does real estate development, what if the land is leased to small local sustainable business that can now piggyback off the back of Wal-Mart’s IP capacity, their credit capacity, their purchasing supply chain?
DS: But there are many critics who say the big box model is systemically unsustainable. That Wal-Mart “doing good” just means either they’re doing less evil—or giving them the free pass to gain even more momentum?
HL: This is the Bill McDonough question: Is eco-efficiency just less bad? I.e. bad, still bad. True. If I could figure out a way to make Wal-Mart perfect, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I can’t. The only way I can figure is to show them a path that is more profitable, better for business, that moves them away from what’s bad into what’s good. Now, are we just fooling ourselves? And I ask myself that question all the time.
DS: What was your reaction when you heard Adam Werbach was working for Walmart? Did it seem like a logical step from his “Is Environmentalism Dead” speech?
HL: It sounded to me like the gutsiest thing I had heard in a long time. Adam is one of these people that you cannot buy. The risk of an activist is always being co-opted. It’s not so much that they throw large quantities of money at you, it’s that they throw the belief that by coming inside you can somehow be more effective. And that over time you cease to be the gadfly, the source of the creative tension, and Adam is not going to sell out. He’s one of these people you can count on acting out of integrity, always. He could have his entire company, his entire staff dependent on the next payment from Wal-Mart and if he thought they were doing the wrong thing, he’d walk.
DS: So when will we know if Wal-Mart is just giving lip service, or really changing?
HL: Do they bring on new products, new ways of doing business? Or do they just keep on doing the same old thing in the same old way? There will be a point in time at which if they keep on doing the same old thing in the same old way, all of us who have been fooling with them will throw our hands up and say, their most stringent critics were right, we were wrong. And I always hold in my mind the possibility I could be dead wrong. But I know how effective it has not been to stand on the outside and chuck rocks. We [environmentalists] have done this since 1970’s—the first Earth Day—and here we are 30-odd years later and we’re losing every major ecosystem on the planet. We have 10 years to turn around climate change. So is Adam wrong playing with Wal-Mart? Could be. But not playing with them is also clearly wrong. It wasn‘t solving the problem. So let’s try something new. Give it a go.