The toilet paper roll story was what grabbed my attention. Last month I went to an evening of storytelling hosted by the good folks at an outfit called Waking Star. The program was billed as, “Journeys – Stories of Aha! Moments.” One of the best Aha! stories I heard that night came from a dude named Andy Ruben.
Ruben spent 10 years working for a company you might have heard of – it’s called Walmart. He became the company’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, and dedicated himself to embedding waste reduction and energy efficiency into the company’s DNA. So where does the toilet paper roll come in? One week, Ruben says, he went to visit the factory that makes toilet paper for Walmart’s private label household brand. The factory had been trying to pioneer a way to fabricate toilet paper without the thin cardboard tube inside. Because, as it turns out, most people (and I know I’m probably guilty of this as well) throw the spent roll in the trash, even though it’s perfectly recyclable. The roll is an unnecessary waste.
The staff at the toilet paper factory were doing everything they could to solve the problem of making, packing, and shipping a tube-less roll of toilet paper. They were on the sustainability bandwagon. But Ruben realized that their best efforts would be insufficient. As he told the audience, “We’re not going to reinvent the industrial model from inside the industrial model.”
Ruben has since left Walmart and embarked on a new endeavor with former Walmart consultant and one time Sierra Club president Adam Werbach. It’s called Yerdle, and it’s a crowd sourcing online community dedicated to getting people to share the things they already own but aren’t using. Think about that tennis racket in your closet. Honestly, when was the last time you played tennis? There’s probably an aspiring Pete Sampras in your neighborhood who could, and would, use it a lot more than you. Yerdle’s homepage makes the point clearly: “Why shop when you can share?”
I recently spoke with Ruben to learn more about Yerdle and to hear what lessons he learned from his time at Walmart.
You were Walmart’s first Chief Sustainability Officer. That’s obviously a big undertaking. What was the hardest part of the job?
The way that I saw it – and the way that I still see it – is that with a large company, or any large entity, the opportunity to make change just dwarfs what is being already being done. There’s just so much potential. The hardest part of that job was continually pushing more people to tackle the climate change. Everywhere I turned, somebody could be thinking about something in a broader way. Something could be more connected to what is going on in the world. Somebody could be thinking about the supply chain in a different way, a product in a different way, customer education, awareness, anything. So the hardest part was, How do we not just do the same old thing as yesterday, just a little bit better? How do you change the way the company sees itself? It’s so much bigger than a checklist of things we’ve done. Because, at the end of the day, there is so much more than a checklist.
Walmart sees itself as a low-cost discount retailer. How were you trying to get the company to see itself?
As a leader in business and society, as a company with so much opportunity to improve people’s lives at every different turn. People who are still there, it’s their job to understand as much as possible the decisions that are made – all the unintended consequences – because then they will make better decisions.
What was the thing you did at Walmart that you were most proud of?
Far and away it was a moment that we went from the home office – where we had these three broad goals around energy, waste, and products – and we went from those three goals to store level. It was a program called PSP, for Personal Sustainability Projects. And in the course that I got to know Adam [Werbach]. So Adam and I basically invented this program together. There were roughly a million people in the US, in the stores.
You mean a million Walmart employees?
Within a few months 850,000 of those employees voluntarily changed something about their lives. It could be the way they were eating. It could be exercise. It could be using less air conditioning, or buying reusable bulbs. It could be composting. Anything. They picked something personal and then changed that one small thing in their lives. That blew me away. The ripple effect of that is hard to underestimate – on policy, on the friends of those people, on their own lives. I had never hoped for anything like that. It was great.
At some point then you came to the idea – I guess while working with Adam – that rather than improving the sustainability of new goods that you were manufacturing and selling, how about just producing less stuff. How did you come to that idea? Did you have some Damascus Road conversion?
It wasn’t one particular moment. It was a constant sense of feeling really good about the improvements, like the one I talked about with the toilet paper. And also realizing that they’re just not going to address a planet of 9 billion people and us having better lives in the future than we do now.
“You could feel really good about free shipping on a $300 tent. Or you could feel much better about $10 shipping on a free tent. Your choice.”
The tricky part of this – and I really believe this, I don’t want to take away from any of that – is that these corporate sustainability efforts basically make things a little less bad. No one should stop those efforts. It’s just that we need more people working on some things that will actually … Like I said at the Aha! moments: “We’re not going to reinvent the industrial model from inside the industrial model.” We shouldn’t stop try to make our model better – because it is our model right now. And I don’t want to poo-poo all of the efforts going on right now, because they’re great. They should keep going. We just shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back and think, “Wow, if we can just make a tennis shoe and get rid of all the adhesive in that tennis shoe, we’ll be fine” We won’t. We’re still buying more tennis shoes than ever before and our closets are getting larger. We’re going the wrong way. We might as well go the wrong way with less bad tennis shoes. But, at the same time, we need to do things that change the size of our closets. It’s not that it’s the answer. It’s just another factor toward addressing the situation that we’re all in. That make sense?
It does – the main idea being that if we had a little bit more sharing, we would have less stuff.
Our belief – we did some early work on this – is that 25 percent of the things that we buy in the US are not being used. They are in the closets and garages around you,
And where did you get that number?
We did some work in [San Francisco’s] Lower Haight, where we basically cataloged for a period of time. We started with one person, everything that she bought, everything in her life, and then we started expanding out into a network, and into her friends. And we found roughly 25 percent of those things were just available. There were random items that people were holding onto. We found hedge trimmers in the Lower Haight, in apartments, in someone’s storage locker. They moved here from the Midwest and they’re storing hedge trimmers. They’re not going to be manicuring Golden Gate Park, it’s just ridiculous.
The whole mentality right now is that we spend all of this time acquiring things, and then we just don’t get rid of them. And when we do [get rid of our stuff], we do it in boxes and bags, and then we get rid of it in bulk. If we could make it as rewarding and as exciting and enriching to get rid of these things as it was to get them, then we can actually start moving millions of items laterally.
We don’t just make 100 percent the items 5 percent less bad. We want to make 25 percent of the items 100 percent less bad by not making them at all. We eliminate the need, and we eliminate the supply chain.
So how does this differ from Craigslist, which is the great community bulletin board of our age? I found all sorts of stuff on there over the years?
Yeah, I mean you couldd say the same thing if you were looking at Airbandb and Craigslist three years ago. You have plenty of places you could rent out on Craigslist. Craigslist is incredible. There’s a number of them – Craigslist, Freecycle. My belief is that we’ll be successful when it’s not just the volume [of stuff] that moves to Yerdle. Our goal is to tap into a set of items that were never even put on Craigslist.
We think it’s great when an item moves on Craigslist. That’s putting it in someone’s hands as much as Yerdle is. It’s just that most of the items that could be moving aren’t. There’s a set of items that right now are sitting in your closet and garages, That is what we are after.
There are things that we learn everyday about what’s going to be required to move more of these items laterally. And so Yerdle today looks fairly different than it did a few months ago. And it will look dramatically different two months from now. I hope that in six months it will look different still. There’s a lot to be done here, because nobody had done this yet.
When this really takes off, it’s going to be a shock to the business model of your past employer. If folks started trading, sharing, swapping more – and buying less – what does that mean for the Walmarts of the world?
I think it means they need to adjust their business model. It’s the same as when Walmart and the retail sector evolved. Wal-Mart, Target, Lowes, Home Depot, Costco – when these players evolved in the 70’s and 80’s, it was an evolution of retail from the department store age. Some department stores adapted, and some were displaced. Dayton-Hudson had Target and it adapted. Montgomery Ward didn’t adapt, and they’re gone. So the players, the retailers, that can evolve to the point of how you serve customers will be the ones that will be around a generation from now.
One of the constant realizations I had in retail was the graphic calculator. You just have to sell 6 percent more [calculators] every year; it’s just how the current industry is set up. My guess is there aren’t any more high schoolers that need them now than there are out there. We want to figure out the model where a quality graphic calculator that’s not going anywhere can move them around as well as making new ones. Those new models are more efficient – they’re smarter from a resource standpoint, smarter from a community standpoint, and they save customers a ton of money. If people could save 25 save of their expenditures by not buying new things, it would save them twice what the discounters save an average family.
It not just bartering as in, You have this and I have that. Or swapping, like, I’m going to give you this for that. We’re figuring out the incentive structures for things like, “I’ve got something right now but I can use that for something I need later.”
Let’s talk a little bit about the incentive structure. Recently there was a piece on Grist about a misadventure in car sharing. I think it’s fair to say that as much as this is a great idea – and I love it – and sharing can be rewarding, it can also be a pain and an inconvenience. So how do make sure that the balance between reward and inconvenience goes more to the reward side?
I think the biggest thing to realize is that it’ early. I have this memory, it must have been ’96 or ’97, trying to buy flowers online. It was so painful. You put in your details, and if you tried to backspace, then the whole page disappeared. And you’d have start over. I was sitting with my wife, and she says, “Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call 1-800 Flowers?” Nowadays, you don’t lose the page when you press the backspace button when you’re buying flowers. In fact, it has gotten so easy you don’t have to even use a credit card anymore. It reminds you when you might need a gift. It gets easier all the time.
We’re in the early stages of these markets, and it’s going to get way easier as we go forward. And the question is not whether we are there right now; the question is how fast we’re going to get there. This space obviously makes sense in ride sharing, in lodging, in everyday things. It’s just early.
I guess my question is: What’s your pitch to a new Yerdle member, aside from the ecological argument, for why this is a useful service?
Sure. So it’s not for everybody. If you just want something where you’re going to take US dollars and have it at your door 48 hours later, just buy it on Amazon. But when you give something away to someone who is really excited about it … For example, I just gave away a jacket to someone who gave it as a Father’s Day gift. When I got a picture back of that jacket, it was awesome. I could have just put the jacket on the curb. I could have done a lot of things with it. But my experience was so much more rewarding. We got a piano about six weeks ago off of Yerdle …
You got a piano?
Yeah. It’s got a bunch of nicks, but it’s a beautiful piano. It’s from this woman, Naomi, who’s actually a friend of Adam’s. And I imagine – I don’t know the entire story behind the nicks on the piano – but I imagine them to be huge. So it’s like, if you really just want a piano and want it delivered right on point, just go do that. But not only did we save the money, but it’s a really cool experience to send a video back to Naomi’s mom about my kids playing piano. So if you’re looking for something that is a little bit different, Yerdle is a really great place.
You could feel really good about free shipping on a $300 tent. Or you could feel much better about $10 shipping on a free tent. Your choice. I think right now it’s for the person who’s looking to do something more with the things they have around them. To make someone’s day and to be connected. Someone who’s looking to find something that’s little bit more special than what you find in the aisle of every store.