In his lecture to a few dozen students, Werbach said he came to this revelation after Wal-Mart contacted him to discuss its environmental impact.
“When I first heard [from them] I literally thought it was a prank call,” he said. But at a meeting, a Wal-Mart representative said the company was committed to eliminating waste in its operations.
For several years, Werbach has worked with the company, which is the nation’s largest employer, to develop “personal sustainability projects” for its staff.
At first these included simple steps like recycling, but eventually the program came to encompass losing weight and quitting smoking, among other initiatives.
At first Werbach tried to stop this evolution, but eventually one manager convinced him that it was beneficial, noting that healthier lifestyles consume fewer resources.
“She said to me, ‘Where do you think all that food comes from?’ and ‘Don’t you think its not very sustainable if I’m not around to see my daughter get married?’” he said.
After graduating from Brown in 1995, Werbach, then 23, became the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club. He later founded Act Now, which advised companies on how to improve their sustainability.
The firm eventually merged with global marketing firm Saatchi & Saatchi.
At his talk, Werbach described becoming disillusioned with many environmentalists’ goals.
He told of a time when he met a female biologist who prioritized her desire to reduce noise pollution affecting wildlife over concerns about human suffering.
“I’m talking to people who say, ‘I’m going to accept pain and suffering...for this greater ecological utopia.’ I’m not willing to do this,” he said.
Werbach also said businesses’ traditional method of sustainability, which is through philanthropy efforts, is ineffective.
“It’s kind of silly. Why do you have to do your good stuff on the side? Why can’t it be part of who you are?” he asked.
Some MBA students were surprised—and reassured—by Werbach’s pro-business tone.
“It’s interesting he advocates that the way to move forward is to be agents of change within organizations,” said Jenny Chiu, a second-year MBA student.
“That resonates at the business school,” added Peter K. Escher, also a second-year student. “It’s comforting that you can enter the corporate world and maintain your idealism.”
At the end of his speech, Werbach emphasized that he wants a movement for everyone.
“I don’t want to throw out this beautiful biologist,” he said, returning to his anecdote. “But I want to bring her into something much bigger.”