I just read the September issue of Fast Company, which has an article about Adam Werbach, who was once the youngest president of the Sierra Club, joining forces with Wal-Mart to increase sustainability. 

What struck me as fitting in the Fight Against Destructive Spin was in the middle of the story, so bare with me as I work backwards.

At San Francisco’s Town Hall restaurant, Werbach met with Andy Ruben, the vice president of sustainability at Wal-Mart.  During that meeting, Werbach insisted to Ruben that Wal-Mart’s business model precluded it from being a sustainable company.  “I wanted to talk about labor conditions,” Werbach says.  “If employees weren’t happy with labor conditions and didn’t have health care, you couldn’t be a sustainable company.”  Ruben replied he didn’t believe Wal-Mart’s labor practices were abusive.  Says Werbach, “I didn’t buy it.”

He left the lunch suspicious that Wal-Mart wanted to use him as a PR fig leaf.  “I thought I was being spun,” he recalls.  But he couldn’t shrug off the audacity of Wal-Mart’s ambitions.

I thought I was being spun.  So spin happens, or is perceived as happening, at the corporate level, too?  Is sustainability happening at Wal-Mart or is it really spin?

Turns out Wal-Mart really is attempting to increase its sustainability and Werbach’s company, Act Now, is helping them get there by creating a Personal Sustainability Project (see below) with the company’s 1.3 million employees.

But many of Werbach’s old colleagues and former clients think he is being spun.

“Someone with Werbach’s kind of brain who has been called a wunderkind is now doing a hybrid between Jenny Craig and SmokEnders for Wal-Mart,” says John Sellers, who heads an activist group called the Ruckus Society, a former Act Now client.

According to the weekly progress reports from Wal-Mart, 40 percent of associates are committed to their personal sustainability pledge and 12,000 employees have quit smoking.  And now Wal-Mart is committed to a personal level of sustainability because it employs one percent of this nation’s population. 

Regardless of the spin some think is happening, they’ve made a commitment, they have buy-in from a significant percentage of their employees, and they have to now make good on the things they say they’re going to do.

Personal Sustainability Project (PSP)

THE FIRST STEP: Every store in a given region sends two volunteers to a daylong paid session, led by Act Now trainers, to talk about what sustainability means to them in their personal lives. Each of the 60 or so participants picks one simple action – an individual PSP – that will improve his or her life and benefit the plant.

SPREADING THE GOSPEL:  Back at the store, each volunteer recruits 10 coworkers, and, using DVDs and guides prepared by Act Now, helps them focus on their own PSPs and trains them to introduce the program to other employees.

FOLLOW-UP:  To complement the person-to-person approach, the company distributes If, an in-house magazine produced by Act Now, and runs a TV show, called PSPTV in employees’ break rooms.

KEEPING TRACK:  So far Werbach’s Act Now team has completed 150 seminars, with volunteers from 4,000 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores.  Every store sends weekly progress reports to Act Now.

Hey Al Gore!  It’s not just me riding my bike to work every day, our own Jason Damata using the same mug every day at his local coffee shop, and our own Molli Megasko recycling paper into notepads around the office, the behemoth might actually be taking notice. – Gini Dietrich