University of South Carolina

Wal-Martís sustainability strategy leads to B-school teaching

By Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-7704

In 2005 Wal-Mart made history when then-CEO Lee Scott announced a bold sustainability strategy that would impact every aspect of its business. Along the way business researchers from the University of South Carolina and the University of Arkansas were given unprecedented access to study the process.

A three-year project has culminated into a series of studies that will be used to teach business students and executives about sustainability and business development.

“The goal of the Wal-Mart sustainability case project is to lead students through an in-depth analysis of Wal-Mart’s journey of formulating, implementing and measuring an ambitious corporate sustainability strategy. Because we have written multiple, interconnecting teaching cases, we are able to have students look across organizational levels and across time to evaluate and learn from Wal-Mart’s experience,” said Andrew Spicer, an associate professor at USC’s Darla Moore School of Business.

Spicer led the Walmart Sustainabilty Case Project with David Hyatt, a clinical assistant professor in Arkansas’ Sam Walton College of Business. Their collaboration has resulted in seven case studies that provide an in-depth analysis of Wal-Mart’s effort to develop and implement its sustainability goals of creating zero waste, being supplied by 100 percent renewable energy and selling sustainable products.

The cases can be accessed for free on the project website.

For the project, the researchers conducted more than 30 interviews, including 25 with current and former Wal-Mart executives and employees to get a variety of perspectives on how the giant retail company is carrying out the strategy through its businesses practices and products. In doing so, Spicer and Hyatt have examined what the company has accomplished, what has worked and what hasn’t.

At the center of each case are questions that address sustainability at a societal, organizational and individual level. These include questions such as: Who in society should set standards for sustainability – government, consumers, scientists or companies? Who in an organization should make decisions about strategy, and how should success be measured and communicated? By what criteria should individuals make their own decisions about sustainability in their roles as leaders, employees and consumers?

“These cases aren’t meant to be a full examination of all the issues that Wal-Mart has faced in its on-going sustainability journey,” Spicer said. “We chose these cases to identify those key decision-points in Wal-Mart’s efforts that would lead to insightful and thoughtful discussions about the opportunities and challenges of designing and implementing a corporate sustainability strategy.”

Spicer said plans call for adding more cases and materials to the website to help professors further enhance their teaching about the relationship between business and sustainability. Spicer will teach the full case series this spring in a course on corporate sustainability in the Moore School’s International MBA (IMBA) and Master of International Business (MIB) programs. He says while the cases can be taught as stand-alone topics, they are best taught as a series so that professors and students can identify and examine the recurring issues that arise across different levels of personnel in an organization, stages of decision-making and over time.

The cases augment other Moore School resources on sustainability, including the school’s Page Prize for Sustainability in Business Curricula, a repository of the best courses and coursework in sustainability taught at business schools nationally and internationally.

In December 2013 the Moore School will open its new building, which is designed to meet the goals of earning a LEED Platinum and Net-Zero rating. The school was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to partner with its Net-Zero Energy Commercial Building Partnership program.

Walmart Sustainability Case Project

  • Published cases:
  • Lee Scott’s Founding Vision (Scott is former Walmart CEO)
  • Andy Ruben and the Design of Strategic Goals and Processes - A (Ruben is former Walmart vice president of strategy and sustainability)
  • Andy Ruben and the Design of Strategic Goals and Processes - B
  • Peter Redmond and the Search for Sustainable Seafood - mini-case (Redmond is former Walmart vice president and divisional merchandise manager of deli and seafood)
  • Defining Sustainable Products (A)
  • Defining Sustainable Products (B)
  • Consumers and Sustainability at Walmart: A Student’s Perspective

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Posted: 12/17/12 @ 6:00 PM | Updated: 01/09/13 @ 8:44 AM | Permalink