While on my recent travels (Alaska, Indianapolis, Chicago and LA in the past two weeks) I got the chance to read the September issue of Fast Company. Adam Werbach, the one time wunderkind of the environmental activism industry (youngest president of Sierra Club) was on the front cover. He is now a consultant and Wal-Mart hired him to manage their sustainability employee training program.
Well, as you can well imagine, the environmentalist “true believers” went absolutely ballistic. Adam has had to hire a body guard it has gotten so serious. Long time friends have disassociated and even ones willing to give him some of the benefit of the doubt are scratching their heads at what has happened to him. The title of the article and headlines on the front cover don’t help: “He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart.”
The obvious reaction is that he has been co-opted and now can no longer be considered a true believer in the environmental cause. In other words, he has lost credibility as an environmental leader and spokesperson. His answer is that Wal-Mart is serious and he can do far more good inside the tent than harping from the outside. What is at stake is the reputation of both Mr. Werbach and Wal-Mart.
I have written extensively in my books and in this blog about the concept of “borrowed credibility.” My advice, based on Aristotle, is whatever you do, don’t do anything to lose credibility. But if you do lose it, you only have one option and that is to borrow the credibility of others. Arthur Andersen tried to do it by getting Paul Volcker in place to run the company, but by then it was too little too late. Wal-Mart has made several high profile attempts at borrowed credibility, most notoriously by hiring Andrew Young. Unfortunately, as I commented earlier on this blog, that effort went sideways when Mr. Young himself made racist comments. It backfired, hurting both Young and Wal-Mart’s efforts. But they clearly are intent in following this strategy now by hiring Mr. Werbach. Will it work? Well, who better to tell the environmental world that he has sat in the offices of the top leaders of the world’s largest company and has determined that they are serious about sustainability than one of the top stars of the environmental world? So, yes, it is working. At the same time, by taking this step, Mr. Webach’s credibility has been harmed so his effectiveness in the “true believer” environmental world has been diminished.
The real hope for both he and the company is in the actions, not the talk or the positioning. Will real, visible action result from the employee training program that Werbach and his team are heading up? Are their substantive and potentially dramatic changes in how Wal-Mart does business that will prove to the skeptics that they are serious? If so, the enviro skeptics will be proven wrong, Werbach will be vindicated and Wal-Mart will have demonstrated that a big company can do good things in big ways and that the strategy of borrowing credibility really works.