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Show me the green Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Along his path to a more sustainable life, C. Douglas McMillon got some basic insight about how important it was to change his ways. McMillon, president and CEO for Sam’s Club and executive vice president for its parent company, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., got the wisdom from his teenage son during a conversation about environmental changes that the retail juggernaut was considering.

“He said, ‘We’re going to need this planet, Dad, duh. You should be working on this,’” McMillon says.

Duh, indeed, he thought as he began helping Sam’s and Wal-Mart’s push to start Sustainability 360, a companywide initiative promoting sustainability. The company started off small but used each change as a steppingstone to get others involved. Famed green activist Adam Werbach was brought in to help navigate companywide changes, while leadership made an effort to celebrate those already making a difference, giving Wal-Mart’s and Sam’s 2 million employees opportunity to see how easy it can be.

“You start by telling stories,” McMillon says. “When someone steps up, you bring them up on stage and say, ‘Look at what this person has done.’ Then people start asking, ‘What can I do differently?’ And we make it as easy as possible.”

Beyond company goals for buying more sustainable products, reducing packaging and changing the energy output of stores, senior leaders asked those interested in making a change to join in at an individual level with a personal sustainability project. The PSP can be small, but with more than 520,000 employees on board since its July 2006 inception, it’s making a difference. With a company magazine that promotes daily changes employees can make, like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and buttons employees get for making the effort, momentum is pushing the platform along.

“I had a person tell me, ‘I’m turning off the water when I brush my teeth,’ and I said, ‘Great, way to go,’” McMillon says. “When you can change the course of a lot of people, you can make a difference.”

The thing that he hammers home is the changes are both voluntary and realistic.

“I don’t know that we’re going to get everybody,” he says. “But, over time, I’d like to think that you’ll influence a majority to do things differently.

“It’s got to be something you personally can do. If we ask you to create a situation where Wal-Mart is powered by 100 percent renewable energy, and you’re the club manager, there is only so much you can do. But you can say, ‘We used to put shrink-wrap around the palates, and we were paying someone to come and get that. Today, we sell it, we recognize the value, and we’re keeping it out of the landfill.’”

McMillon says that difference-making ability is helping build a more involved employee base.

“It’s helping attract and retain people, especially younger people,” he says. “They want to make a difference. You might be in college today, and in less than a year, you could be a buyer, and you get to implement what I just asked you without a manual. You can say, ‘I’m not going to buy any more of this item until we talk about the recycling issue.’”

McMillon also sees the company’s efforts producing positive effects with consumers. During a recent tour of several Sam’s locations, he pulled up a chair in one club’s café and watched people notice signs about the company’s projects.

“They were grabbing family members and saying, ‘Look at that, they did this, they did that,’” he says. “We are going to see sales growth because as customers become more aware of this issue, our packaging will be more relevant to them.”

It hasn’t been long since H. Lee Scott Jr., Wal-Mart’s president and CEO, asked a small group of executives to start thinking about sustainability. Thinking back to that meeting and the talking-to from his son, McMillon says you have to start these conversations at the top and realize people are interested in making these changes, but they just aren’t sure how to begin.

“I’m an example of somebody who was not thinking about this, but when asked to think about it, you change,” he says. “Executives are people, too, and they have families. It’s not that you have to win an intellectual debate. You fuel that with financial numbers, like the income from recycling, and now your interests are aligned.”

HOW TO REACH: Sam’s Club, www.samsclub.com or (888) 746-7726