Big Green Brother

By Mieszkowski, Katharine | Mother Jones, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Big Green Brother


Mieszkowski, Katharine, Mother Jones


When Wal-Mart tells its workers to live and breathe sustainability, is it (a) creepy, (b) innovative, (c) greenwashing, (d) all of the above?

EVERY WEEKDAY MORNING, between 7 and 8 a.m., Tom Custard fishes through the trash at the gas station at the Sam's Club in Hermantown, Minnesota. Armed with two shopping carts, the 61-year-old goes through the six garbage cans by the pumps, sometimes in 40-below windchills, carefully separating out bordes and cans tossed by customers who can't be bothered to walk to the recycling bin.

But if you figured the man in the gloves and fedora for a scavenger, you'd be wrong. Custard is a gas station attendant for the big-box store, which is owned by Wal-Mart; picking through the trash is a task he thought up himself. "I think it's the right thing to do, and I feel that I'm doing something for the environment before I retire," says Custard, who is due to hang up his yellow reflective vest at the end of the year.

Custard is one of hundreds of thousands of employees partaking in an initiative Wal-Mart calls the Personal Sustainability Project, a.k.a. PSP. Since 2007, all Wal-Mart employees in the US have been asked to take a simple, concrete step to benefit their health, their local community, or the earth. PSP pledges, which can involve work or home life or both, have included vows to drive the speed limit (to save gas), clean up trash, quit smoking, switch to a reusable bottle, or turn off the tap when toothbrushing. Since last year, Wal-Mart claims, 45 percent of its workers in the United States have taken on a Personal Sustainability Project; workers receive no financial incentive, and many of the projects take place after hours, off the clock.

The project is the brainchild of former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, who is now CEO of the Saatchi & Saatchi marketing agency's green branch. (Werbach declined to comment for this story.) It's part of a sweeping sustainability effort Wal-Mart launched in 2005-a campaign that has seen the company do everything from pledging to double the efficiency of its truck fleet to pushing General Mills to shrink Hamburger Helper boxes by replacing crinkly noodles with straight.

So, is the PSP one of the quickest ways to get large numbers of people to go green-or just another way for WalMart to extend its tyranny over workers' personal lives? The answer just might be both. Wal-Mart's enormous impact- via its 1.9 million associates, 200 million customers, and the staggering 10 percent of all retail spending that takes place in its stores-is well documented; the company literally transformed the business landscape with its ruthless focus on price, notes Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect. "If Wal-Mart is serious about sustainability, it can have an incredible impact on how the economy operates," he says.

The PSP also suggests that Sam Walton's successors envision the workplace as more than where you toil to get a (however meager) paycheck and (ditto) health insuranceas, instead, a catalyst for personal growth and social change, where "PS P captains," cheerleading coworkers, spur you on toward your goals. The program, says Fishman, is an example of corporate America filling a role akin to churches and community organizations-and that's not a bad thing in his view: "As long as it doesn't drift in the direction of being some kind of compulsion, it's wonderful. …

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