Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Next Generation Retail Partnership

Jeffrey Hollender announced on Monday that Seventh Generation has started doing business with Wal-Mart.

Last time I mentioned Hollender, I accused him of whining. I stick by that accusation, but I like him nevertheless. I like his candor. I like that he's not afraid to write about complicated and substantive issues that connect only tangentially with his field of expertise. I like his company. And, after reading his latest blog post, I think it's a good thing that he and Seventh Generation have opened up to the idea of working with Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart launched a business over the weekend called Marketside. It's Big Discount's* version of the farmer's market, and Wal-Mart is piloting the venture with four stores in Arizona. Four stores selling fresh meals, natural foods, and Seventh Generation cleaning and paper products.

The first three sentences of Hollender's announcement set the tone nicely:

I’ve sometimes said that hell would freeze over before Seventh Generation would ever do business with Wal-Mart. In fact, at times I’ve made even more strongly worded statements. Now I’ve got to concede that I was wrong.

He goes on to explain why Wal-Mart is a problem, why Wal-Mart is a solution, and why he has changed his mind about working with them:

Over the past several weeks, we have all endured a wrenching lesson in what happens when some financial institutions get “too big to fail.” Well, Wal-Mart is too big to not achieve its ambitious social and environmental goals. Whether it’s climate change, health-care reform, or natural-resources depletion, we can’t take on the world’s challenges without Wal-Mart and its tens-of-thousands of partners and suppliers. At this point, we now believe that we can have a bigger impact by partnering with Wal-Mart than by shunning it.

In my opinion, it's a good post. Some people will surely see it as a reluctant but necessary apology, an excuse for greed. But it feels genuine to me. And I think anyone with strong feelings about Wal-Mart ought to read it.

Like it or not, Hollender and Seventh Generation are hugely important to the future of sustainable business. They sit on the very edge of the main stream, and their business successes and failures (and how we interpret them) will shape both the ways in which big businesses will get better and the ways in which good businesses will get bigger.

*Note: I have a strange urge lately to categorize industrial giants with a capital Big. Big Oil, of course. Big Media. Big Music? And now Big Discount? If this is annoying, let me know. I spent a few minutes wording and rewording that sentence, and I was actually pretty proud of myself when Big Discount spilled out. Reading it again, however, I'm a little skeptical.