Haas School of Business

First-Person

Rob Kaplan

Rob Kaplan
MBA 07

Director of Product Sustainability, Walmart

Building the Bottom Line for Sustainable Business


Hear from Rob

Eliminate 20 million metric tons in carbon emissions, the equivalent of taking 3.8 million cars off the road. That was the daunting task that Walmart assigned Rob Kaplan on his first day at work: implement the giant retailer's goal to drastically reduce the carbon embedded in products sold in its stores.

Walmart had already worked out a basic strategy with the Environmental Defense Fund and other groups, but it fell to Kaplan, MBA 07, to nail down specific priorities and plans. That meant working with legions of vendors and their supply chains to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions required to produce, ship and consume products ranging from meat and vegetables to laptops and detergent.

Today, Walmart says it is well along the way toward hitting its goal by 2015, and Kaplan has now assumed an even broader job. As Director of Product Sustainability, he is now responsible for improving the overall environmental sustainability of Walmart's "Consumables" and "Health & Wellness" businesses. That includes health and beauty products, household chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. On top of that, he oversees efforts to improve packaging (a major source of long-lasting waste), and supervises Walmart's direct-farm program to enable stores abroad to buy more food from local farms.

Greening the World One Business at a Time

For Kaplan, it's all about harnessing the power of business to make the world healthier, safer, and fairer. Before coming to Haas, he had been communications director at Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California. At the Haas Center for Responsible Business under Professor Kellie McElhaney, he concentrated on building the business case for social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility. He was on an MBA team that developed a green-marketing strategy for Fetzer Wines, a brand owned by Brown-Forman. The results were so good that Brown-Forman hired Kaplan upon graduation as Senior Corporate Responsibility Analyst.

The common thread has been marrying the goals of a for-profit business with broader social objectives. The goal isn't simply to feel good or win public praise. The goal is ultimately to deliver better products more efficiently.

This is Business, No Question About It

"This work is ultimately 100 percent about the bottom line," he emphasizes. "We are not just doing this for the environment, or for feel-good reasons. We are creating value for our company while also creating value for the environment."

Kaplan crystallized that goal while pursuing his MBA at Haas, where he worked closely with the Center for Responsible Business. CRB, offering both courses and case work with corporations, focuses on the hard business logic for investing in environmental and social sustainability.

"A key tenet of CRB and of Prof. McElhaney was to focus on core competencies," Kaplan says. "I've held true to that approach in integrating corporate responsibility into brand names at Brown Forman and into merchandising at Walmart."

Kaplan cautions that he often encounters resistance, and that Walmart's suppliers often worry about changes that will make them less competitive. The answer is to work with the whole constellation of buyers and vendors.

"Some of these challenges are systemic, and no single company or manufacturer can influence an entire supply chain on its own," Kaplan says. "So how do we help move an entire industry together? If every company in the supply chain is moving at the same pace, then you're able to raise the tide for all of them."

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