Seven years ago, Walmart launched a sustainability effort that included working toward 100-percent renewable energy, creating zero waste and selling products that sustain people and the environment. Now, researchers at the University of Arkansas and the University of South Carolina are performing case studies to examine the issues Walmart experienced in implementing its broad sustainability strategy.

“Companies have to think about sustainability as a systems problem – a problem not generally well understood,” David Hyatt, clinical assistant professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, told EHS Today. “While most managers want to know what works so they can replicate and exploit returns, the real question is about when, where and under what conditions green strategies are profitable, especially given firms’ different competitive and regulatory environments, and their different respective capabilities.”

To address these complexities, Hyatt suggested following Walmart’s lead. “They [Walmart] did not engage in a process of discovery by hiring an analytical consultant to provide the ‘answers.’ Neither did they demand the strategy department produce the answers. Instead, they endogenized the process of searching for the business case into the strategy itself. In short, before hoping for the exploitation of firm benefits once the successful positioning was found, they instead structured an exploratory process about those conditions to discern where environmental and business goals overlap,” said Hyatt.

“Thus more generally, sustainability is a search, not a destination,” he added.

Hyatt and Andrew Spicer, associate professor at the University of South Carolina, are lead contacts for the Walmart Sustainability Case Project, a collaborative effort to develop teaching case studies based on challenges Walmart encountered through the various stages of implementing its sustainability strategy. The project is unique, Hyatt said, because the series of cases focus on one topic and one organization over a specific period of time.